We make mistakes. We hide mistakes. We lie about mistakes. And they grow bigger and bite us back. Instead of spinning, hiding, or rationalizing a mistake, make it serve you. It’s not easy, but we can face and fix mistakes, then grow from them.
1. See the mistake. This sounds obvious, but the reason we make mistakes is because we don’t know what we are doing is going to result in a mistake. Often, when we notice a mistake, we immediately stop thinking about it, and focus on hiding it or blaming it on someone else. That’s the dangerous part. See the mistake for what it is–a slip up you made because you drew the wrong conclusion, thought something wrong was right, or raced ahead too fast. If you don’t know what you did wrong, there is no second step.
2. Acknowledge your mistake. First, acknowledge that this is your mistake and own it. You can’t fix it if you don’t own it. Take a look at the root cause of the mistake–was it sloppiness, overwork, the wrong process? Find how it went wrong and you’ll know why it went wrong.
3. Develop a solution. You know how and why the mistake happened, figure out a solution that solves it. You get to fix all your own mistakes. In fact, you are the only person who can do the best job. Because it was your mistake, you have more information than anyone else. This should take minutes, not days. The solution may have several steps that need to take place over days, but you have to have a reasonable fix in place quickly.
4. Alert your boss first, team members second. Your boss needs to know about major mistakes before your team members. Smaller mistakes that your team members can fix in their normal workday can be fixed at that level. Going to your boss isn’t a fun task, which is exactly why you developed the solution before you left your office. If you go to your office, dump the problem on the boss’s desk, you will be creating a panic situation and you will be responsible for using the boss’s fix. Your answer, because you are closer to the problem, is going to work better.
5. Know how to prevent the mistake. Besides acknowledging responsibility and knowing how to fix the mistake, you have to know how to prevent it from happening again. If your mistake is an emergency, this step needs to happen after the emergency is over. Preventing mistakes is the part where overwork– too many projects to be completed in not enough time–comes in. You can point out that you are concentrating on too many priorities and ask your boss to prioritize your workload. If you think everything is the same level of importance, you are headed for trouble. And you’ll be wrong. Not everything is equally important. That’s the short answer that leads to a big failure. Whether you need training, better communication, more responsibility, more authority and less responsibility, this is the time to point it out in a clear, tactful way.
–Quinn McDonald develops and runs business communication workshops.