FREEDOM AND SAFETY
The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How should you react after making a big mistake at work?” is written by Brigette McInnis-Day, executive vice president of human resources, SAP.
Just as mistakes are part of our everyday personal lives, they are just as much—if not more so—a part of our work lives. You’ll likely make hundreds of mistakes throughout your career, but it’s how you handle these mistakes that will set you apart from your colleagues.
First, it’s important not to beat yourself up over mistakes. Errors are inevitable and actually an incredibly important part of your career and personal growth. I’ve seen some of best talent make the worst errors, and yet they continue to be the highest-performing employees we have in the company.
That’s because in order to innovate and take big leaps—qualities that companies value in their employees—you have to take risks. Risk takers will inevitably fail more often than those who always play it safe. Still, because they take risks for the good of the company—to innovate or try something new—they will also get more support in the aftermath of their mistakes. Having this network of support and a team to stand behind you is critical, especially when you fail.
When mistakes do occur, the first move you should make is to acknowledge the mistake. Alert all stakeholders to the issue immediately. How quickly and deliberately you call attention to a mistake you’ve made or found can impact how severe the repercussions will be. In doing so, it’s important to be honest and factual: Describe the issue, explain what happened and why, and if possible, provide a recommendation for next steps.
Not only is this a crucial step for solving the problem, but it will also help establish your credibility. When you’re open and honest about mistakes you’ve made, it can help build trust and integrity in the office. When you’re not honest about your mistakes or point fingers at others, you might look deceitful or malicious. Even if you made an honest mistake, the act of covering it up can be extremely damaging to your career, since you might no longer be viewed as a team player.
A previous boss once advised me that when it comes to mistakes, it’s important to escalate early and often, and with good will. Oftentimes employees will try to brush these unfortunate situations under the rug and solve them on their own, but in fact, the opposite approach is best. I learned this lesson after approaching my former boss with a mistake that I had made after it was too late to fix it. He told me that he wished I had come to him sooner, so he would have been able to help. That’s why raising the issue to colleagues and managers early—when the situation is manageable—is critical. It will give others the opportunity to weigh in at a time when there is a higher probability of finding a solution to the problem.
Remember, it’s okay to ask for help. But make sure you have thought through all possible solutions and scenarios first. One important quality of a leader is that they know when to involve others and can put together the right team to get a job done. Remedying a mistake is no different, and can in fact be a good opportunity to prove that you have this ability, even when times get tough. When multiple people from a team come together and brainstorm next steps, they are able to find the best solution, not just the fastest or the easiest one.
I’d also advise finding a solution to the error, even if it wasn’t your fault. This might go against your instincts, but managers appreciate employees who take responsibility and are able to respond to problems quickly. If you’re a manager and take ownership of a team member’s mistake, it also establishes trust with your team, as they see that you are willing to go to bat for them.
No matter what, the best advice about mistakes is the advice we’ve all heard the most: Learn from them. But don’t try to do so as they happen. We learn best from our mistakes when we take a retrospective approach and analyze the situation once it has been fully resolved. At this point, take a moment and debrief. Determine if anything could have helped to avoid the mistake in the first place. Involve as many people as possible in this debrief, so that your organization gets used to a process of constantly evaluating and improving.