Everyone has made mistakes at work. The only variation is in size and severity. I've managed to create a fairly decent highlight reel of mistakes over the years. I've fired off a highly confidential e-mail to the wrong customer, completely overlooked meetings in a flurry of activity, overlooked significant legal risks until moments before an important contract was inked, and even uploaded my personal vacation photos to the company intranet by accident.
If you read this list, you would probably assume that I was flighty, unorganized, flippant or negligent. Nothing could be farther from the truth. However, I am - just as everyone else is - a human being and prone to be utterly fallible, especially when overburdened, short of sleep or steeped in a stressful or chaotic environment.
Even top performing executives give speeches that fall flat, lead sales teams that end the year hopelessly short of their goals, or under-deliver on products that they over-promised on. One senior executive I worked with once said something that stayed with me. After a rough quarter, he told a story about an athletic coach who approached him after he had followed up an amazing victory with a crushing defeat. The coach advised him: "You're probably not as good as you thought you were last week. But you're probably not as bad as you feel right now."
Affirmation for Self-Forgiveness
I forgive myself for making a mistake and promise to view this experience as a chance not to berate myself or cave into feelings of shame, insecurity, doubt, insufficiency or fear, but as a chance to grow, learn, laugh at myself, recommit to my goals and appreciate with humility that to be human is to be fallible. I will not allow this experience to put a seed of doubt into my heart that makes me question whether I am worthy of success. Instead, I will remember that the most successful people in this world have not achieved their dreams by being perfect, but by being persistent, inspired, determined, humble, hard-working and creative. I accept that I cannot turn back time and undo my mistake. Still, I can commit to wiping the slate clean tomorrow. I can commit to restoring my faith in myself, and if necessary, others’ faith in me. I can commit to not being derailed when something has gone wrong. I can commit to action to remedy any harm that I have brought to myself or others. I can commit to honestly evaluating any habits, circumstances, beliefs or events that may have made it easier for this mistake to occur, such as a tendency to overschedule or procrastinate. I view every mistake that I make as a chance to improve, and I trust that my positive traits will always outshine my foibles.
Navigating A Mistake At Work
Never Deflect Blame
It can be so easy to resort to the tendency to deflect blame. Sometimes it can make enormous logical and emotional sense to do so, like when you want to say something like "If the Marketing Team hadn't waited so long to give me the report, I would never have missed the deadline." Still, the simple fact is that even if other teams or people around you screwed up royally, and this contributed to your own personal error, you still need to take responsibility for your own behavior. Drawing in other people and teams and casting them in a negative light can cause interpersonal conflict or grudges that can last for a long time. It's best to always lead with your ownership of an error. If you feel that it is important to note the role of a third party (e.g. the Sales Team has consistently been neglecting your company's written process, leading to mistakes, etc...) do it strategically and only after you've taken full ownership for your role, actions, and attitude.
Don't Get Drawn Into Lengthy Post-Mortems
Focusing undue attention on a mistake that has been made energizes its impact, cements it in people's minds and often costs additional credibility. It's fine to examine the mistake to determine what led to it, but make sure that this process is relatively quick and dirty and does not evolve into a fishing expedition or witch hunt. Keep your focus (and that of your coworkers and boss) on ways to productively move forward.
Always Pair Your Apology With Solutions
It's effective to state: "I missed the meeting because I did not adequately review my calendar that day. I'm very sorry for the inconvenience and have taken steps to set up better auto-alerts so that it will not happen again." Managers and bosses do not really care about errors in the same way as the person who made the error. As a senior professional, when someone approaches me about something that went wrong, it's like being presented with a book that should be skipped so that I can read the end. We all just want to know how it has been fixed, or what role we need to play in fixing it.
Always Say "Thank you for your patience and/or understanding."
This is a subtle point, but one that proactively places it into the reader's mind that they should be understanding and patient. You are assuming their good will up front.
Do Not Berate Yourself
Especially if you made a mistake while mastering a new role or skill, don't be hard on yourself. People who are growing, learning and challenging themselves make more mistakes than people who are complacent and stagnating within a role. In fact, if you have not made an error or worried about getting something right in the last six months, you should probably ask yourself if you have outgrown your current position. Children that are learning to walk, fall all of the time. Professional runners fall rarely. Sometimes a lack of mistakes means that you have achieved a peak level of proficiency or skill and should be focused on ensuring you don't wither on the vine at your present level of achievement.
Embrace Feelings of Embarrassment or Shame
This is one of the most primitive, negative emotions that human beings experience. After all, these emotions indicate that we believe we have done something unacceptable to our community, something that risks being "kicked out of the tribe." As highly social and communicative mammals, being excluded from community speaks to our most basic survival instincts, regardless of whether that community is our employer, school, CrossFit league or family.
As we evolved, exclusion could be equated with hardship or death, so this wiring runs very deep within every member of the human family. Take a moment to really feel these emotions and cry if you need to. Once you have allowed yourself to feel terrible, you can explore these emotions and ask yourself if you are choosing to experience them in a productive way.
Do you always feel like you need to be perfect because you were raised in a household where emotional rewards were associated with material gains? How were failures viewed in your family? Did you ever have an authority figure make you feel like you weren't good enough, or single you out for a mistake? I was definitely raised in a household with high expectations and it made me very risk adverse as an adult. If the expectations were high, it made sense to stay with "safe" activities that I knew I could master.
I broke out of this pattern by taking a few crazy chances: I started to write screenplays and took up aerial acrobatics. NO ONE writes an amazing screenplay or masters a complex aerial move on Day One, so I was completely free to fail miserably - and it was great! It can be liberating to do something that you know you'll be terrible at! What can you do to show yourself love despite your imperfections or mistakes?
If you find that you are in an environment where your mistakes are greeted with animosity, blame, berating, finger-pointing or other forms of aggression or negativity, start planning your departure. Positive work environments that offer real opportunities for growth and advancement do not function like this. Companies with poor leadership or financial struggles function like this. I think the mark of a truly enlightened company culture is when the leadership talks about failures in terms of the collective, by not placing blame directly on any "scapegoat" individual, team or department. Especially if you find your honest errors are greeted with a scathing dressing down by a boss, you should consider your next career move.
Experienced, successful managers operating in healthy work environments do not have to raise their voices or berate employees to get things done properly. Rather, that is a tactic of someone unqualified for their job, and any work environment that permits such behavior is not one that you should allow yourself to be part of for any great length of time.
I've included stories, anecdotes and useful tips I've gained over my career as an Entrepreneur, Board Member, Executive and Senior Counsel. I hope you can find ways to navigate to your own dreams by learning from my experience! Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or want to share your own stories. Stay inspired!