What to Do When You Make a Mistake


The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “Success does not consist in never making mistakes, but in never making the same one a second time.” I could not agree more. Mistakes are inevitable, but history should not repeat itself. Through almost 20 years of working with corporations, associations, government agencies, and the military, I have found that executives and leaders are usually understanding when a mistake happens but will not overlook it when the same errors happen again and again. Fortunately, there are three simple steps to ensure history stays in the past where it belongs.


Step 1: Just Be Honest—Own the Mistake Immediately and Fully

Research from the University of Michigan and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that doctors who admit to their mistakes and apologize are far less likely to be sued for malpractice than those who don’t do so. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Things change when someone comes to you and says, “I really messed up. Will you forgive me?” Somehow, a genuine apology is disarming. It begins the process of repairing trust and respect.

For this reason, you must own your mistakes. Although it’s a terrible feeling to have to admit an error, the quickest way through these painful circumstances is to acknowledge the mistake and take responsibility. In fact, I would say it’s actually good news when you are the one responsible for a mistake because you can change you. If a mistake is out of your control, it forces you to wait and hope that others will make the necessary changes, which feels like being stuck in the back seat. I prefer to be in the driver’s seat myself, even if that means a mistake is mine. That way, I can learn, grow, and change—and prevent the mistake from happening again.

You can own up to mistakes on an individual level, but you can also do this on behalf of your division or organization. Customers need to hear apologies when they are necessary. I am not suggesting that you take sole responsibility and say that something was your fault when it wasn’t. However, if you are a part of a team or division that messed up, you can step in and apologize. If an external customer deserves an apology, simply say, “On behalf of my organization, I am sorry.” Be straightforward and don’t ever say, “I am sorry you feel that way.” If you plan on saying that, you might as well just not apologize at all. For more strategies on what to say when you make a mistake and need to apologize, please see our booklet “21 Rules for Delivering Difficult Messages.” The bottom line? Take full responsibility whenever you can, say you are sorry, and then move on to Step 2.


Step 2: Evaluate and Share the Lesson Learned

In the context of an apology, it can be helpful to share what you’ve learned from your mistake. This can increase the goodwill of those you are making the apology to because it shows that you’ve reflected on your error, your apology is genuine, and that you’re not just trying to smooth things over. Of course, before you can share the lessons learned, you first have to know what those lessons are. If you’re not sure, then take a step back, investigate, and even ask others what lessons they think you could draw from this experience. Generally speaking, managers and executives don’t expect you (or anyone) to be perfect, but they do expect people to learn and grow. Sharing the lessons you learned shows a certain amount of introspection and maturity, which can showcase your ability to analyze and move beyond difficult circumstances.


Step 3: Rebuild Trust—Implement a Prevention Plan

A step beyond the lessons learned is understanding how you will prevent the mistake from happening again. What will you do differently? If you don’t know, it is okay to ask others for feedback. In my experience, people are generous when someone asks for help and they often provide great insight. People who are great at customer service will say that the best way to fix mistakes and prevent them from happening again is to ask the customers how they would like the mistake to be resolved. Surprisingly enough, when a customer is asked how they’d like the situation to be fixed, they usually don’t ask for as much as you expect.

Your plan to avoid the mistake in the future requires specific actions. Making vague assurances such as “I will work harder,” “I will do better,” or “I will be more proactive” is not enough. In fact, those kinds of statements may actually serve as a sign that the same mistake is likely to happen again—because the plan to fix things is inadequate. Specifics are critical for two reasons: first, you really do need to know what you will do differently. Second, the number one reason why people tend to be skeptical about moving forward from a mistake is because they are worried that it will happen again. If you’ve completed Steps 1 and 2 and are accountable for a specific plan in Step 3, you will give others the confidence that the mistake won’t be repeated, rebuilding trust in the process.

Barefoot Wine once put the wrong bar code on a shipment of Cabernet, so the wine rang up for less than it should have at the store. When the mistake was discovered, one of Barefoot’s founders, Michael Houlihan, delivered a check covering the store’s loss to the store’s corporate office. The check also covered the time and expense of dealing with the problem. Houlihan then described to the manager how Barefoot’s internal processes would be changed to make sure such a problem would never happen again. The manager thanked Houlihan for doing the right thing and continued to place orders for Barefoot Wine.


Discretion Required

These three steps are critical in all situations in which a mistake has been made, but they don’t necessarily all have to be shared outwardly. What you do share depends strongly on your relationship with those you are apologizing to. Furthermore, some aspects of the steps are more relevant to certain kinds of relationships. For instance, a customer cares about Steps 1 and 3, but they do not necessarily need to hear all of the lessons learned that you will use to grow from the situation. Customers generally just want you to own up to a mistake and fix it. Your boss, however, is interested in all three of these steps (although he or she may not be overtly asking about them), most likely to ensure that you are growing and that the issue won’t happen again.

Once you have an understanding of these steps, you can use them as a coaching tool in a group setting – with your team or division, or even with your family. It’s a great process for working through the issues that arise when a mistake happens and apologies need to be made.

Please understand that I am not advocating that we dwell on our mistakes. We do need to put our focus on moving forward; but I have found that people who practice these three steps—even if only internally for their own benefit—grow from the process. Those who shirk responsibility for errors are destined to repeat their pasts and get stuck there. It is the process of taking responsibility and examining the lessons learned that frees us from the past and propels us into a better future.

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