You Just Made a Big Mistake – Now What?

As Head of Human Capital for over a decade, I have made some very public mistakes (OK, many mistakes, but who’s counting?), errors, omissions, or misjudgments that affected 3,500+ employees or 30+ Partners. Luckily, I had an extraordinary boss, mentor and sponsor who gave me great advice about how to handle mistakes. “Fall on your sword, fix it fast, and don’t make it again,” she said to me after my first blunder while reporting to her. That advice stuck with me and now, with many mistakes behind me, here is my advice on facing your own.

Don’t point fingers > Do take full ownership of fixing the mistake

Mistakes are seldom the fault of one person as they often result from the miscommunications or misunderstandings of many. However, don’t spend energy or time on placing blame and figuring out who did what when. Focus all your energy and time on fixing what went wrong. Take accountability for addressing and resolving the negative consequences of the mistake. Until the damage is fixed as best it can be, your actions should be centered solely around solutions. Make it right regardless of who shares blame. Not only is it the path of integrity, but it is the road to redeeming your credibility.

Don’t throw junior people under the bus > Do hold them accountable

If someone who reports to you made the mistake, it is still a mistake that happened under your management. Don’t name them as the culprit. If one of my team members made a mistake under my watch, then I took the bullet as the senior person responsible for their results. And I did not take that responsibility superficially or as a grand gesture, but rather as recognition that it was my responsibility to establish team processes that would mitigate meaningful mistakes. Of course, human error is inevitable, but as the leader in charge of a business unit, I understood that it was my job to minimize the negative consequences of human error.

That all being said, don’t give your team member a free pass. Make that person accountable for finding and implementing the solution, identifying what went wrong and then putting measures in place that will ensure the mistake does not happen again. It does not help your team if you swoop in and fix things. Mistakes are wisdom in the making and as their manager, you must help your team develop that wisdom.

Don’t over-apologize > Do exercise transparency

Direct your apology to the specific negative consequences your mistake caused (e.g., “I am sorry for the confusion and anxiety this caused”). Don’t go around saying blanket statements like “I am so sorry”, or “I profusely apologize.” These statements can be perceived as weak or lacking control. Men may not be able to relate to over-apologizing, but I think this advice will resonate with women (see my article “Stop Apologizing and Start with E-mail“). Along with a specific apology, let people know why the mistake happened, what you have learned from it, and what you are going to do to make sure it does not happen again. A focused apology that demonstrates your understanding of the consequences conveys accountability. Identification of root causes of the mistake, along with communication of a detailed plan of action, portrays that you are in control of the situation, and have the capability to fix what happened. This transparency calms the negative energy around the mistake and strengthens your credibility.

As the saying goes, sh*t happens. When mistakes are made, true leaders must demonstrate humility, accountability, and transparency in order to make things right and restore their credibility.

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