Made a mistake? Why it’s a good idea to own up to it

We all dread making mistakes at work, but leadership expert Thom Dennis argues that it’s important to own up when you do and to learn from the experience.

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We all dread making a debilitating mistake which impacts the business, especially when it makes us feel less proficient, assured or intelligent, but it happens to us all. Mistakes are an integral part of learning and finding solutions and can often be a catalyst to future success so the way we handle our mistakes is frequently more significant than the mistakes themselves.

There are countless reasons as to why it is critical to own up to your mistakes. Most importantly it often prevents escalation. Taking responsibility for your mistakes allows for a solution to be found more quickly and may minimise further potentially more serious, negative consequences.

You help strengthen the foundations of a positive work culture when others see there is a safe space to own up to errors and miscalculations and learn from mistakes. Others may follow your lead and it is entirely possible that any mistakes they make in the future could have greater consequences than yours so having an open culture keeps the business safer.

I was working in a factory as a young man on a milling machine and one day I mistakenly misaligned the blades as I lowered the assembly into place. The result was a frightening ‘ping’ sound as one snapped off. Luckily no one was hurt and I felt terrible about my error, but my thoughts immediately went to protecting myself: “How can I get away with this, how can I stay out of trouble?” I owned up, and the Production Manager helped me learn what to do next time to avoid repeating the mistake. I feared retribution and received support and learning.

Accountability shows honesty, professionalism and integrity, three important leadership qualities. Being transparent and communicating clearly when things are not going according to plan later opens up discussions about how to proceed and improve next time, and the sharing of ideas and respectful opinions.

A team that learns from mistakes is more innovative. Team members are more willing to take risks
and explore new ideas if they know that the organisation values learning from failures. Contributing to the problem-solving process demonstrates your commitment to the team.

When you have made a mistake, you have a unique opportunity for self-reflection and learning, which is crucial to personal and professional development and admirable qualities of a leader. It keeps focus on what is right and necessary rather than by contrast, lying and putting energy into maintaining an untruth which has an exhausting multiplier effect.

So what should we do if we make a mistake at work?

1. Share what has happened with someone you trust. Take action rather than hide any issues. Lead by example and be open and honest. Covering up will result in losing momentum and deplete energy, motivation, goodwill and trust.

2. Acknowledge the events that have unfolded but maintain a balanced perspective. Allow yourself the necessary time to process and experience your emotions, but try not to ruminate (easier said than done!) and then place it in the ‘learnt from that’ pile and leave it behind you.

3. Create a plan of action for how to resolve any subsequent problems whilst giving progress reports to build trust. Perhaps a practice run is needed next time or more feedback. Share ideas and tap into your colleague’s wealth of knowledge, talent, and experience. Understand rebuilding trust and resetting perceptions may take time, so be patient.

4. Actively choose to access your growth mindset. This means conceptualising failure as a temporary condition which in turn stops us from allowing setbacks to stunt our progress. Resilience, determination and flexibility in thinking enable us to adapt, problem-solve and grow.

*Thom Dennis is CEO of culture and leadership specialists, Serenity in Leadership.

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