What to do when we mess up
Mistakes happen, I know I’ve made thousands of them. It’s what you do next that matters.
I was reminded of this concept over the holidays. A member of my team made a small mistake. Nothing dramatic and certainly nothing to get worked up about, but it was a mistake. When I shot her a note to confirm there wasn’t information I was missing her response both surprised and delighted me.
- She owned the error immediately.
- The error is fixed.
- She explained what she’d do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
- She gave me a little context to why the mistake happened.
THAT, folks, is basically a perfect response. So why was it surprising? The fact that this type of reaction – own it, fix it, eliminate recurrence, and context (not blame) is not something I usually see.
Honestly, what I’ve seen mostly over the years is:
- This is why this happened to me.
You’ll note that there is no step 2 on the list. Once in a while, I’ll get a “and it’s fixed,” but that’s rare.
Just writing that experience down annoys me. For me, I care less about the “why” and more about the ownership, the solution and the next steps. I got SO annoyed in thinking about this that I thought I should do a little self-reflection and see if I was alone in this annoyance.
And, if I’m totally honest here, I wanted to play with the new polling functionality on Facebook and see what happened. So I posed the following question to the community:
I kept the options simple to see the immediate reaction. And the results?
77% / 47 people said, “Just say sorry.”
23% / 14 people said, “Explain why.”
It also generated many comments and thoughtful discussion. There were quite a few people in my camp of the “please own it for goodness sake.” A significant number of comments wanted to have the “sorry,” the “why,” AND the eliminate recurrence.
- “Apologize to accept responsibility. Come up with a plan. Explain how it won’t happen again, which allows explanation why it happened.”
- “I’m a fan of saying, ‘I’m sorry. Here’s what I can do to make it right.’”
- “The why can be important to ensure it’s not repeated but all too often the search for why becomes a blame game.”
- “But it has to be a succinct and believable story. And of course, the apology comes first.”
I also was so baffled by the response from people who said “explain why” that I called a couple of them. I learned that they are easily the most empathetic and patient people I I know. If they’re your boss, you’ve scored.
The most significant surprise was the answer to my follow-up I posed to a few in conversations:
“Do you tell your team what a successful response to a mistake looks like?”
The most common response? “Yeah, I should.”
You already know this. Like dating, it’s often not the big things that send a relationship to the point of breaking up; it’s the little things. Little annoyances build up into big annoyances. And then one day you’re done.
So can you agree to share your preferred method of communication when mistakes are made? Feel free to use mine, or make up your own. Heck, better yet you could even share this article and discuss with your team.
And for those of you who make the mistakes. And yes, this is all of us, including me, maybe the real point of this article is about what we can do when we mess up.
Here’s why it won’t happen again.
Context, if needed.
Not that hard right? And as surprised and delighted I was by the response, this should be the norm, not the exception.
Are you in?