What To Do When You Make A Mistake

Whether you make a small error or commit a massive blunder, finding out you’re wrong can sometimes feel like a threat to your self-identity. Researchers find that in both our words and deeds, we are constantly expressing how we see ourselves—and how we want others to see us. This is called “identity claiming.” When we’re wrong, we feel the pain of realizing the identity we claimed for ourselves—an expert, the go-to resource—has suffered a blow.

When you make a mistake about something only you know about, you can reconcile it privately. However, when leaders make a mistake after rallying the troops, they’re faced with an “identity granting” problem. You may have seen yourself as knowledgeable, but if those around you no longer view you as intelligent, the identity you chose for yourself hasn’t been affirmed by others.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Deborah Grayson Riegel, principal at The Boda Group, wrote about how to get ahead of the situation when you realize you’ve made a mistake. She says it’s important to talk with those who are impacted by your decision, including your boss, your team, colleagues, direct reports and clients. Each of these conversations should have three parts. Today, we share Riegel’s thoughts on how you should approach these conversations.

Removing word with pencil’s eraser, Erasing mistake

Take responsibility. Never be afraid to say, “I was wrong.” Riegel says avoid making comments such as, “mistakes were made” or “it didn’t turn out the way I had anticipated.” This deflects or minimizes your personal contribution. Instead, it’s better to offer a brief explanation without making excuses. She suggests acknowledging that your error negatively impacted others and be willing to listen without being defensive to others’ recounting of that impact. Never interrupt and be quick to apologize.

Address what you need to do right now. When you make a mistake, don’t ignore it or hope it goes away. It’s crucial to take ownership of the blunder and take action immediately. This remains core to any crisis communication, even if your mistake doesn’t constitute a major crisis. Riegel suggests telling others what you’re doing right now to remedy the mistake and distinguish between the parts that can be fixed and those that can’t. Include what you’re doing to address the substantive impact as well as the relational impact of being wrong. Always remain open to feedback about your next steps and over-communicate your plans.

Share what you will do differently next time. It’s tough being wrong and you don’t want to make the same mistake again. Riegel says that being wrong without self-reflection is irresponsible, even if you rarely take to reflect on yourself and how you can change and grow. She encourages you to take some time contemplating your contribution to the situation and how others contributed as well. Then tell those who were impacted by your mistake what you learned about yourself in the process and what you plan to do differently in the future. You should also commit to asking others for frequent feedback to ensure you stay on the path of the commitments you made.

Mistakes at work happen. By responding appropriately, you can learn from the situation and prevent it from happening again.

Source: Deborah Grayson Riegel is a principal at The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She also teaches management communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

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