How Your Organization Can Benefit from Goofing Up

Don Tennant

Why are we humans so reluctant to admit it when we make a mistake? My guess is it has something to do with a fear of negative consequences, because we so easily forget that negative consequences are much more likely to result from the failure to admit a mistake than from making it in the first place.

We also too easily forget that the very act of admitting a mistake can have remarkably positive consequences. A welcome reminder of that fact is on its way from a couple of entrepreneurs who learned that lesson well, and who wrote about it in a forthcoming book, “The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built a Bestselling Wine.” The authors, Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, found that honestly and humbly admitting their mistakes contributed to their success, because people tend to remember how you handle a mistake more clearly than the mistake itself.

Houlihan and Harvey have come up with a list of five tips on what to do when you make a mistake, and I thought it was well worth sharing here:

Acknowledge it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to admit that your organization did something wrong. Uttering that mea culpa involves swallowing your pride and acknowledging that you are not, in fact, perfect (which is an illusion that our culture encourages us to zealously cultivate). But the sooner you admit to the error, the more you reduce the drama — and the faster you can move on to the next, more important stage: what you are going to do about the situation. People actually like a little imperfection now and then. It demonstrates a level of authenticity, vulnerability, and humanity with which we all can identify with. Plus, it’s harder to be angry with someone who says, “You’re right — I messed up,” than with someone who insists the fault doesn’t lie with him, even though you know it does. And it’s difficult — if not downright impossible — to make any constructive progress if the responsible party refuses to admit there’s a problem.

Recognize how it happened. If you admit fault but then put the incident behind you, guess what: You’ve just increased the chances that it will happen again. It’s very important to investigate how and why an error occurred, so that you can fix the faulty procedure or process. That’s why we made sure employees weren’t afraid to make or report mistakes. Basically, our approach to mistakes was to say, “Congratulations! You found a new way to screw up, and that’s a good thing. We didn’t know that this could happen, but now that it has, we can keep it from happening again.” Then we would brainstorm what went wrong and make technical adjustments. Honestly, large siloed organizations where you can be demoted, passed over, or even fired for a mistake are missing the boat. That’s because real progress in progressive companies is often built on the backs of mistakes and the improvements they spark.

Don’t blame someone else for it. What happens when a mistake involving your organization really can be traced to someone else? While it’s easy (and temporarily satisfying) to point your finger and say, “Not my fault,” the truth is, if it happened on your watch and you are accountable for your organization’s work, you ultimately share the blame in the impacted party’s eyes. In this situation, get to the bottom of what happened and aim your focus on what you and your organization can do on your end to prevent the situation from reoccurring.

Write it down. If you successfully resolve a negative situation that was sparked by an error, and then rub your hands together and continue with business as usual as if to say, “Yes, it happened, but it’s all cleaned up now,” then you’re making a second misstep. If you don’t write down what happened and how to avoid it, even you are in danger of making the same mistake again, and the same is doubly true of others. When you are still smarting in the immediate aftermath of a fiasco, it’s easy to assume that you will always remember what you did wrong and that it will never, ever happen a second time. But often, as life goes on and your focus inevitably shifts to other things, your memory can get fuzzy. Or you might fall back onto old habits unconsciously. And you certainly can’t pass your own experiences to everyone else in your organization through osmosis. That’s why it’s crucial to take the lessons you learn and physically make them part of your organization’s policies. This might mean writing a new procedure, checklist, or sign-off sheet. But whatever you do, write it down.

Resolve that it won’t reoccur. Along with your apology, assure the injured parties that it — whatever “it” was — won’t happen again. Voluntarily describe how the mistake happened and what changes you are implementing to prevent its reoccurrence. And most importantly, tell the other guy, gal, or group how you and your organization are going to make things right. Most people will appreciate your thoughtfulness, resolve, and the action you are taking. And often, handling an error in this way will reinforce the fact that you are, ultimately, a trustworthy organization that can be relied upon. Mistakes are bound to happen. So don’t waste time and energy beating yourself up, and especially don’t try to create the illusion that you’re perfect.



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