Monday, May 02, 2016

How to Make Mistakes and Survive

Difficult day at the office recently, a mistake was made, impacting about 35 people.  I didn't do it, but my name and face are on the front of the project so it falls to me.  I asked those responsible what they were going to do, and the answer came back nothing.  They didn't see it as an issue (they are sending bills to 35 people who have not bought the program yet.)  I was beyond words, so badly frustrated that I couldn't get mad without getting rude, and I try not to do that in the office.

Now I am far from perfect, I make mistakes every week.  Most of them are little mistakes, sometimes they are major mistakes.  I get a lot done, and I make a few mistakes along the way.  I have a colleague who never makes mistakes, but she also proof reads the photocopies 19 times.  I am okay with making mistakes and I seldom have people mad at me for it.  There is a simple system to making mistakes and surviving.

Step 1: Take ownership of the mistake.  You need to be able to describe the mistake without blaming anyone or anything else.  No excuses. Sometimes you are taking ownership of a problem that involves others, your ownership needs to be "I" or "we."  Saying someone is not good enough.  Until you have taken ownership of the mistake don't move to step 2.

Step 2: Apologize without making excuses.  For little mistakes this can be as simple as oops, sorry I shouldn't have done that.  For bigger mistakes it rises to "forgive me, for I have sinned."  Well not actually those words, but "I am very sorry, please forgive me (or us.)  Make it sincere and heart felt. Apologizing is especially effective if the person receiving the apology didn't expect one.

Step 3: If needed offer a specific plan to remedy the mistake. As one of my old bosses taught me, this is the time to underpromise and overdeliver. If you think you can have it fixed by Wednesday, tell them you will have it fixed by Friday.  Not all mistakes require a remedy.  Even simple mistakes can benefit from a promise to do better, for example I cut in front of another driver in a parking garage the other morning. As we got in the elevator the other driver quipped, we almost met by accident.  I said, I am sorry, I cut in front of you, I will slow down and be more careful the next time.  The three elements are there, I cut in front of you - I took ownership of my action, I am sorry - the apology, and I will slow down and be more careful -  the remedy.  She was apologetic that I felt the need to be apologetic (assuming that I really felt that way and not that I am psychopath who was just manipulating her feelings - think about that - 1 in a 100 they say.)  Either way, she didn't spend the rest of the day saying, some idiot almost killed me in the parking garage and didn't even say boo!

So, Dan, it is simple, you say, "We made a mistake and you may be billed for the conference, that you have not registered for yet, we are very sorry, if you want us to cancel the order, please email me and I will cancel the order within 1 business day, if you are willing to forgive us for the mistake,  you have already been registered, please pay the invoice when it comes in the mail next month, you are all set to go.


  1. You are so right and have outlined every step perfectly.
    It's so sad that people don't own their own mistakes these days. We live in a "get away with it if you can" and "it's someone else's fault" society. Tragic.

  2. Physicians are quite frightened about making mistakes and debate whether or not to take your advice lest in admitting mistakes it promotes malpractice suits. It turns out more patients sue for the doctor NOT taking your advice. I bungled once and took this approach and the patient (years later) still sees me as the best MD ever. I think manning up saved me a lawsuit.