The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
Can you stay true to who you are without sacrificing your success? Absolutely YES.
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Mistakes In The Workplace:
Recovery vs. Defeat

People make mistakes in the workplace all the time.
Surviving is all about your response and recovery.

Have you ever made a mistake and wanted to crawl into a corner and hide? Have you ever wanted to turn back time, to stop a situation from happening as it did? Have you ever felt like others are judging you, wondering why they believed in you in the first place? 

Sometimes it feels like there's nothing worse than making a mistake, especially in the workplace where so many eyes are on you. Even the smallest of mistakes can feel epic and overwhelming. The thing is, successful business people make mistakes all the time. The good ones know how to respond and recover brilliantly.

Donald Trump has filed for bankruptcy multiple times. He's a billionaire and a very well-respected businessman. Martha Stewart went to jail, yet she continues to grow a billion dollar empire. Steve Jobs was fired by Apple, only to come back as one of the most respected innovators of all time.

It may feel like the end of the world when you make a mistake, but it isn't. If these leaders can recover from highly publicized and substantial mistakes, surely you can recover from your mistakes. 
What's the best way to recover from a mistake?

How do you avoid making mistakes in the first place?

First, Some Perspective 

Before we consider how to manage mistakes, let's put them in perspective. So many people I know live in fear of making a mistake in the workplace. They avoid taking on challenges. They aren't willing to try new activities. They won't establish relationships that are different from ones they have today.

It's easy to become paralyzed by uncertainty and doubt. The fear of making a mistake, and being judged as a result, puts false limits on your potential. Here are a few of my favorite reminders to keep mistakes in perspective:
  • Everyone makes mistakes. It's part of life. 
  • Other people rarely judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves.
  • Recovery comes far faster than we think it will.
  • Leaders know mistakes will happen. They don't like it, but they expect it.
It's important not to let our fear of mistakes hold us back in the workplace. Once you find perspective in this area, you're able to take the right kinds of risks to grow and achieve. You put yourself in a position to learn and you're open to new opportunities. Success follows.

Recovering From Mistakes:  I Made A Mistake. Now What?

So what do you do when you make a mistake? Most of us will have several opportunities to practice recovering from mistakes over the course of our careers. I like to think I get better at it every time. I've certainly learned a lot by analyzing my own mistakes and the mistakes of others. Here's my best guidance on what to do when you make a mistake in the workplace.

1. Control Your Reaction.

It's very common to have an immediate stress response when you find out you've made a mistake. Most people take small mistakes in stride, with a quick "Sorry about that" before moving on. With more significant or visible mistakes, the reaction is naturally stronger. You may want to scream, beat yourself up, beat someone else up, point the finger at someone else, or break down in tears. Try not to do any of those things.

First, breathe. Second, ask for a moment if you're with someone else. Third, find a private place to gather your thoughts for a few minutes. Bathroom stalls work great when your options are limited. It's important that you regain composure before you do anything else. Sometimes you need a minute to get there. It's okay to ask for it and press pause until you can see the situation more clearly.

If you lose control of your reaction in front of others before you can get away, regain your composure as best you can and excuse yourself. Rejoin the group when you've calmed down. Don't apologize for your reaction. If anything, apologize for the disruption. It's a good idea to remind yourself of the perspective I outlined earlier. It definitely helps in the moment to know that you're not alone and that the moment will pass.

2. Understand What Really Happened.

A lot of people instinctively go to "What should I do?" when a mistake is made. Often we imagine the worst of all possible outcomes when a mistake first comes to our attention. It's important to understand what exactly has happened before you act. What exactly occurred? What will likely happen as a result? What are the best and worst possible outcomes?

Get your arms around what happened quickly. If you have to ask others for help or information, and you're not sure how to do it, try this: "I think I may have made a mistake and I need your help. Can you confirm <a,b,c> for me? Please don't talk to anyone about this just yet. I'll communicate more information to everyone as soon as I have all the facts."

This secures their cooperation and in most cases, their confidentiality. It's always better for you to be the one who tells others about your mistake.

3. Own The Mistake... and The Recovery.

You've heard me say before that mistakes almost always find their way home. It's important from the beginning to acknowledge when you've made a mistake. Owning it doesn't mean beating yourself up. It means that you need to take full responsibility for making it right, to whatever extent you can. People respect accountability, and never more so than when a mistake is in play.

If you've taken a moment to get it together and you understand what's happened and who's impacted, you're ready to evaluate your options. Think creatively about your recovery plan. Identify every possible action you can take to reverse or address the mistake. Are there ways you can minimize the damage or decrease any negative impacts to the company? To the individuals impacted? For yourself?

4. Gain Buy-In and Act Quickly.

Time is generally not your friend with mistakes. It's important to minimize time between when a mistake is made and when action is taken to address it. You likely need to get buy-in from your boss or another to take action toward recovery. Get in front of them quickly with a plan.

My recommended approach for the message: "I made a mistake. Here's what I know about what happened. These are the consequences that I'm aware of. Here's what I plan to do to address it. Do you agree with my approach?"

You may find that the first response of others is to ask, "How did this happen?" My response is always the same, for myself or in defense of others. "I will absolutely spend time to understand that, but right now I'd like to focus on responding to the situation as quickly as possible if that's okay." I encourage you to say something similar. You may be forced to stop and discuss it real-time. If you can wait, do.

5. Acknowledge Your Mistake To Those Impacted.

Experts often say that you should apologize for a mistake and move on. I say maybe yes, maybe no. It's important to acknowledge your mistake with the people who are impacted. No question. That may mean you need to apologize, particularly to your boss if you've put them in an awkward situation. Maybe you hurt someone's feelings or harmed their reputation in some way, in which case you should also consider an apology.

In other cases, an apology may or may not be appropriate. I discourage people from apologizing by default for mistakes, particularly in situations that were unintentional and without significant harm to others. It's natural for people to want to apologize. It's a way to try and regain favor.

The challenge is that apologies in the workplace generally make others feel uncomfortable. People feel sympathy for you. What you want them to feel is confidence that you have a situation under control. Sympathy is comforting. If you need it, find it outside of the workplace.

Apologize when it's appropriate. The rest of the time, acknowledge that you made a mistake and that you own the resolution. Be accountable. It's enough.

6. Avoid Repeat Performances.

Most companies and leaders know - if you're someone who's pushing the envelope on creativity or taking risks that could benefit the company, you're likely to make some mistakes. There's tolerance for some amount of risk and the potential for things to go wrong. On the other hand, there's no tolerance in most organizations for repeat performances.

Making the same mistake more then once is generally a kiss of death in the workplace. Making different mistakes is okay, as long as you avoid making them consistently or haphazardly. Hence the photo for this article: Let's make better mistakes tomorrow.

Even if no one asks, though they likely will, it's always a good idea to understand why a mistake was made in the first place. Every mistake serves as an opportunity to grow and develop in your profession. Don't cheat yourself out of the gain associated with a mistake by ignoring the lesson.

Study it, learn from it, and share your learnings if you can. Others will respect you for acknowledging a mistake, addressing it, and learning from it to protect the interests of the business.

People forget about mistakes remarkably fast when you get back to work and deliver great results. Still, you may be teased about a mistake, particularly if your organization has a competitive culture. I recommend taking it in stride, but responding in a way that shows you're ready to move beyond it. 

Here are some examples I've used: "They say all the greats make mistakes, at least once. I'm glad mine's done. What are you gonna do for yours?" or "How was that for a solid recovery?" or even "Glass house. Very dangerous. Careful throwing stones." (Referring to the old adage that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.) Whatever you can do to be a good sport, but put it to rest, serves you well.

Avoiding Mistakes:  Can It Be Done?

I'm hesitant to write about avoiding mistakes, because I actually believe mistakes are good for you. I've learned more from my mistakes than my victories. Some of my mistakes have also led to fantastic results, that wouldn't have materialized if the mistake hadn't happened. There can be great benefit in a well-managed response and recovery.

Trying to avoid mistakes is a bit like staying inside all summer to avoid a sunburn. The opportunity cost is too great. Get out in the sun, just be prepared and take specific steps to avoid the burn. For this analogy, I'd tell you to wear sunscreen, re-apply often, buy a hat, and seek shade every now and then. In the workplace, avoiding the burn plays out something like this. 

10. Trust your instincts. Never ignore early warning signs. If it doesn't feel right, dig in.
9.   Expect the unexpected. Don't be cocky. Always consider what might go wrong. 
8.   Use care with information. Choose - and be - a good source of information.
7.   Listen to others. Believe it or not, they're smart too. Sometimes smarter than you. 
6.   Don't try to do it all. It's okay to ask for help. Partner with others when needed.
5.   Watch your chain of command. Don't stray too far up or down. It gets messy.
4.   Don't procrastinate. It creates unnecessary stress and spawns mistakes.
3.   Avoid saying stupid things in the interest of being funny or mean. It backfires.
2.   Abstain from social network vomiting. It's too easy for your comments to go viral.
1.   Care about your work and reputation. Without it, you're a mistake waiting to happen.

I read a comment on a blog recently that really stuck with me. Here's what it said: "The less I care, the more mistakes I make. I make a lot of mistakes here." It was anonymous and had nothing to do with me or any organization I'm involved with in any way.

That said, the boss in me wanted to fire him on the spot. The coach in me wanted to tell him to reconnect with his self-respect and find a new job. The writer in me appreciated the comment, because it was so honest and real. 

One of the best ways to avoid mistakes is to care about your job, your reputation, your clients, and your colleagues. I offer this just as something to think about. If you find at some point that you don't care about any of that, it's likely that you're making more mistakes than others would find acceptable. When you make a mistake, do a gut check to see if this may be the cause. If so, you may want to consider either changing your perspective or changing your job.

Final Thoughts

No one likes making mistakes. When you can avoid them, absolutely do so. Just don't let the fear of making a mistake hold you back from learning new things or gaining new experience. People make mistakes all the time in the workplace. It's expected. Many leaders will tell you that if their people aren't making mistakes every now and then, they're not pushing hard enough to be great.

If you make a mistake, try to control your stress response in public. Work quickly to understand what exactly has happened and what consequences you need to manage. Be accountable for developing a recovery plan and acting quickly in response.

Acknowledge the mistake and reconcile with those who are impacted by it. Don't assume you need to apologize in every case. Sometimes it's enough to acknowledge the mistake and be accountable for addressing it. 

Always try to learn from your mistakes. Accept that you'll make more mistakes in the future, like it or not. Try hard not to make the same mistake twice. (Originality is favored when it comes to mistakes.) Don't take it personally if you're teased about a mistake you've made. If you're a good sport about it, and avoid taking offense, it passes quickly. 

Recovery always comes much faster than we think it will in the moment. It also gets much easier to recover once you've been through it a couple of times. Mistakes aren't always bad. There's a lot to be learned from them, particularly when you know how to manage them well.

One last thing. Be gracious when others make mistakes in the workplace. If you haven't already experienced a mistake of your own, you will. Set the tone now for how you want others to respond when you do. 

More soon,