Why and How To Admit Your Mistakes – 5 Simple Steps
I was in the meeting room with one of my team members. She had a look on her face that combined surprise and delight. It was her monthly performance review, which I started off by apologizing to her for being a little harsh on her during the team meeting earlier that day. I explained that I wanted to encourage other people to contribute, but I was wrong to shut her down when she wanted to contribute. I assured her that I appreciated her contribution and wanted to encourage it. She said she was not bothered by the interaction, but appreciated my apology.
That interaction crystallized a lesson I had learned from managing people.
One of the most important things a manager needs to have is his/her team’s respect. It is an important catalyst that allows the manager to lead a great team. It cannot be bought. You cannot fool people into respecting you (not for long at least). Respect is earned through actions you take, especially in tough times when the “right” choice is a hard one.
Of course there are a lot of things you can do as a manager to earn your colleagues’ respect. One of those is admitting your mistakes and living up to them.
It goes without saying that if a manager expects employees to acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them, then the manager should lead by example.
Yet it surprises me how many people don’t acknowledge their mistakes. Some managers avoid admitting mistakes because they feel it makes them feel weak in front of their employees. They feel they need to always be right for people to look up to them. They might think they are too busy for it. Some even think they are immune to apology since they are the boss after all. All that is nonsense.
In my experience, admitting mistakes the right way (more on that later) is one of the best ways to earn people’s respect and trust. That applies to your employees, colleagues, and boss equally.
Here is my approach to admitting mistakes:
– Acknowledge your mistakes when you make them. If it caused a problem, admitting the mistake will save everyone’s energy from pointing fingers and instead gets everyone to focus on the solution. Sometimes you are not sure if its a mistake or not. For example, my team and I used to get complaints from customers (sometimes from the CEO and colleagues) about “mistakes” in our product. My process was to acknowledge the complaint by telling them we will look into it and get back to them. We would investigate the issue. If it was not a mistake, we would clarify to the complainer how and why it is not a mistake… all that is done politely of course. If we did in fact make a mistake, we would acknowledge it, fix it, and assure them we will prevent it from re-occurring.
– Learn from your mistakes: Do your homework to find out why you made the mistake in the first place. It might have been an assumption you made that steered you the wrong way. It might have been fatigue from overworking. Most of the time, it’s a crack in your system. Identify and eliminate the root causes for your mistakes.
– Tell people when they are right. If someone had pointed out the mistake and you didn’t listen, tell them they were right. This shows that you are in the same boat and want to move forward together instead of the “I know what’s right, just follow me” attitude. It also encourages people to contribute to improving things when they know their voice is heard.
– Follow up: So you acknowledged your mistake, learned why it happened, and gave credit to people who were right. Now the most important step is to point out what you will do. What adjustments to the system will you do to prevent this mistake from happening again? What will you do to get back on track? How will you control the damage caused by the mistake (e.g. if a customer was affected by the mistake)?
– Listen: As you go through that process, keep your eyes and ears open to feedback. Someone might have a learning nugget you might have missed from the experience. I had a colleague who was the voice of reason for me when I’m too deep and too emotionally involved in the problem. He would point out why the problem was happening and his opinion on how to resolve it. It’s important to listen to others.
– Keep going: don’t let mistakes cripple you. You have to accept that you will make mistakes in your career and life. Learn from them, improve, and keep going. The worst thing you can do is to become overly conservative and cautious to avoid future mistakes. You don’t get too far and fast walking on eggshells.
What about you? How do you handle your mistakes? Share your experience and opinions.