How Effective Leaders Handle Mistakes

I recently filmed a DVD program for my online training platform at www.AndersonVT.com on the topic of handling mistakes, and the response was even more robust than normal. I believe that’s because handling mistakes—ours and others’—is such an ongoing, real-world leadership responsibility that affects everyone both at work and at home. How you handle your own, and others’, mistakes also goes in long way in determining the level of trust, buy-in, connection, and positive impact you can have on your team. Following are thoughts and strategies to help you master this important leadership skill. This piece is divided into two sections: handling your own mistakes first, and then effectively handling the mistakes others make.

Phase One: How to Handle Your Own Mistakes

1.    Admit a mistake as quickly as possible. Waiting to acknowledge a mistake gives the perception you’re either oblivious to what you’ve done, or that you may be looking for a way out of taking responsibility. As a result, delayed confessions allow a hiccup to become a cover-up, and then a conspiracy. This perception will break trust and build disgust amongst the ranks. Don’t try talking yourself out of something you behaved yourself into. Own it. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it, just own it. The objective is to bring closure to a mistake quickly, so you can focus on moving forward. As an aside, if you admit an error, don’t marginalize your effort by making an excuse for it (what about “just own it” don’t you understand?). This models a positive leadership example your team will pick up on.
Leaders with bloated egos or gross insecurities never manage to execute this first step. They wrongly believe admitting a mistake makes them look weak when the opposite it true. Admitting mistakes requires strength, and earns respect because others know how difficult it would be for them to do the same thing in your situation.

2.    Learn from the mistake, then don’t repeat it.  This well-known quote sheds insight onto this point: “You can never make the same mistake twice because the second time you make it, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice.” Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant offered sound advice along these lines when he famously said, “When you make a mistake admit it, learn from it, don’t repeat it.”
The reality is that anyone who tries new things, seizes the initiative, and makes decisions is going to make mistakes. We all do “stupid” things from time to time. But the key to growth is doing “new” stupid things, not the same old stupid things. Doing the same stupid things indicates you are unaware, unteachable, undisciplined, or worse. Doing new stupid things demonstrates you’ve left your comfort zone, tried something different, and now have an opportunity to learn what didn’t work, so you can get it right next time.

3.    Teach others from your mistakes. This builds trust, connection, and bondedness with team members. John Maxwell put it well: “If you want to impress others, talk about your successes. But if you want to impact them, talk about your mistakes.”

4.    Get over it and move on. Continuing to rehearse, rehash, or blame yourself for the mistake is a mistake that compounds the original mistake. If you’ve admitted it, learned from it, and adjusted because of it, move on to gaining new ground.

With the four previous tips in mind, let’s move onto Phase Two.

Phase Two: How to Handle the Mistakes of Others

1.    Don’t get personal. Focus on the issue without getting personal with the individual that caused the issue. There’s a big difference between calling an action “idiotic” and calling someone an idiot. Attack the performance; coach the performer.

2.    Address a mistake in direct, professional terms, without unnecessary drama or exaggeration. Again, be direct and professional, but also be conversational. There’s no need to pile on by injecting unnecessary hype or drama with statements like, “I can’t BELIEEEEVE you could do something so INSIPIDLY FOOLISH and CARELESS! If ignorance is bliss you must be the happiest man on earth!”

3.    Focus the person on solutions not on scapegoats. An employee mistake is an unparalleled coaching opportunity. Look at it as a teaching tool, not a battering ram. Help the person think for themselves and take ownership concerning what they could have done better and how they’ll improve next time.
Asking questions like: “What should you have done better, or instead?”, “What do you recommend we do from here?”, “What did you learn and how can you ensure you don’t repeat the error?”, are non-confrontational, collaborative ways to help the person grow by causing them to think and commit to act.

4.    When confronting a mistake, don’t rattle off their rap sheet of past unrelated mistakes. Again, this is a coaching opportunity, not an indictment. You’re not proving a case in court; you’re addressing and correcting a behavior. Keep the main thing the main thing. Rehashing past, unrelated mistakes is debilitating and distracts from the matter at hand. Engaging in “rap sheet rehearsal” will also break trust and credibility if you do the same with family or friends. It’s a recipe for ending up miserable and alone in your life.

5.    Encourage the person to take another shot. Making mistakes can cause others to procrastinate, become passive and lose their killer instinct; especially when a mistake is handled improperly. It’s a shame when this happens, because mistakes are a part of the growth process. When someone stops trying, both they—and the organization—miss out and fail to cash in on the mistake’s benefits of: learning from the errors, learning a better way, and growing as a person. In such cases all they, and we, pay is the price for the error and never get the payoff the price could have brought us.