Four Steps for Recovering from a Mistake

OK, SO YOU’VE JUST BLOWN IT. But even a major blunder doesn’t mean your career is over. Much as we all would like to be perfect, our humanity manifests itself when we make a mistake. "To err is human," Alexander Pope wrote nearly three centuries ago. Maybe your new hire is not working out, the technology you selected as the corporate standard is suddenly obsolete, or you made a slip of the tongue at just the wrong time. What we do after that heart-stopping moment, when we realize the error, may determine just how big a problem it turns out to be.

Step 1: Acknowledge the mistake. The first step toward recovery is to admit to yourself that it’s your error. Denying responsibility makes you defensive and tends to elongate the resolution process. Owning up frees you to learn from the experience.

Whine not! Avoid the victim mentality, searching for an outside force on which to blame your actions. Everyone stumbles occasionally, even the best leaders. Don’t let this experience push you into risk-aversion. Instead, use it to learn and grow.

Step 2: Communicate. You may feel like hiding in your office until the dust settles, but generally this will not serve you well. There is no need to take out a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal exposing your mistake, but there probably are some people who need to know. Consider who might be impacted by the problem?especially your customers. Next, think of those who will inevitably hear about the problem?perhaps your boss. The earlier you expose the issue to these stakeholders, the better the outcome will be. It is certainly better that they hear it from you than be blindsided.

Early exposure also gives you the opportunity to draw others into the solution. Strange as it seems, many studies show the best customer relations are built when recovering from a shared problem. When apologies are in order, offer them only if they are sincere. In all of this, it’s your credibility that is on the line.

Step 3: Try to fix the problem. Gather your wits and see if you can salvage the situation. There are three possible remedies: undo, redo, make do. Which approach you use will depend on several factors. Is it even possible to undo the damage? How important is it? Can you tolerate the time for a redo? How costly are the various alternatives? Consider the psychic cost to the organization as well as the financial expenses.

Step 4: Learn the lessons. Once the problem is resolved, do a postmortem. Use this to understand the mistake so that you don’t repeat it. Ask "why" five times to get past the symptoms and down to the underlying causes. How could you have avoided the problem? More information, wider participation, better discipline, tighter controls, better judgment, a better sense of timing? Make changes that will eliminate the problem.

You may be tempted to skip the postmortem, but it’s actually the most valuable part of your experience. If you learn nothing from the mistakes that you will inevitably commit, you will put your career in jeopardy. I often think that I learned more from my own mistakes than from any other source.

Early in my career, I was interviewed for a study on future leaders. Asked to recount one of my most memorable mistakes, I was slightly embarrassed by how readily it came to mind. It was reassuring to learn that the study data showed that the most successful leaders could all vividly recall their mistakes and recount the lessons learned from them.

Not Mine!

In addition to your own errors, you will have to deal with blunders made by people in your organization. Consider this scenario: Your key lieutenant comes into your office and closes the door. Bad news. The vendor contract he just negotiated and signed was based on a benefits case that was flawed?to the tune of $30 million. This actually happened to me at Xerox. It took at least two deep breaths to get going, but we crafted a plan to recover. First, we made senior executives aware of the potentially diminished benefits. Second, we asked our vendor to share the pain. (It was a reasonable request with such a large contract.) Together we found a way to offset most of the problem, by wringing additional efficiencies out of other parts of the contract. Third, my team evaluated where the misstep occurred and put some new checkpoints in place. The key lieutenant remained a very successful member of the organization, having owned up to his mistake and learned from it.

When someone reporting to you makes a major mistake, it can threaten more than just your career. Your handling of the problem can have ramifications for the entire organization. Here are a few principles to think about.

  • Accept the responsibility as yours. This is your organization. You are accountable for all its results?good and bad. There are few things more pathetic than watching a senior manager assign blame to one of his people.
  • Remember the golden rule. No matter how frustrating the situation, it is important to listen well and not react emotionally. Remember when you had a similar experience.
  • Provide air cover for your people. Unless the misbehavior is egregious (criminal acts, for instance), support your staff publicly. Be visible with customers and senior executives so that you can hear the "hall talk." Use facts to dispel the myths.
  • Take the opportunity to coach. Help your people discover what they might have done differently to produce the desired outcome. Be a sounding board and offer assistance. Help restore the confidence levels.
  • Empower employees to find the solution. It may feel safer to tighten the reins, but this will only lead to a disempowered workforce that avoids risk.
  • Stay calm and confident. Your reaction to the problem will be watched up and down the organization. Your superiors will view this as a test of your ability to handle a crisis. Employees will wonder if mistakes are career killers. They’ll ask themselves if it’s safe to be honest, or whether they’ll need to cover up. Your ability to differentiate incompetence from occasional errors will answer those questions.

Whether you blew it or someone in your organization did, dealing with the error appropriately requires integrity and courage. Those are two of the key attributes of an effective leader. Keep in mind the rest of Pope’s line: "To err is human; to forgive, divine."

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