I’ve made a mistake. How do I deal with it professionally?

There is a big disconnect between managers and businesses that profess to invite people to learn from mistakes.

Yet I make one small mistake and everyone is out to find out who did it, because it’s the culture to blame. People love to talk behind someone’s back … I hate it. No wonder people like me get defensive at times!

Learn from mistakes – it’s even more of a cliché in these tough times. Learning from mistakes seem to be something we teach on leadership and management courses – and many managers think it is about their opportunities to take risks and grow and that is OK if a strategy doesn’t work out so well.

The problem is that often mistakes are made ‘accidentally’ or as a result of careless work. The quality is not up to standard. There is rework needed and this leads to time and cost. Mistakes can be about inaccuracies and when a client is involved (and possibly, lost business) that’s when people often get angry.

A typical case: A client is furious about the inferior quality of a recent delivery. The problem lies with the outsourced contractors, or is it within her own team? To avoid a blaming culture it’s best to not just say “let’s learn from mistakes”, but in advance of any problem promote a few concepts and live by them:

  • Get it right first time – ie put the processes in place to make sure things are done to the right standard.
  • Encourage a positive attitude and open communication – talk about what went wrong without blame.
  • Focus on client satisfaction and fix problems quickly.

When a customer is angry … respond professionally:

  • Respond calmly and obtain facts.
  • Apologize and take responsibility.
  • Outline solution.
  • Reassure with timelines.
  • Apologize again.
  • Give full commitment.

Acting quickly to resolve the problem is important. So, if a problem has occurred someone in the team, if not the team leader, needs to ensure several steps are followed:

  • Investigate facts.
  • Explore problem without blame.
  • Remain calm and focused.
  • Isolate specific problem.
  • Implement solution quickly.
  • Manage time and budget.
  • Motivate and direct others.

It’s important to keep the customer/client informed when a mistake has been made and a problem is being resolved:

  • Update client ASAP with progress.
  • Outline full solution clearly.
  • Restate apology.

The part that is often overlooked is to talk with everyone in the team – a quick team meeting can do it. Talk openly without blame (of course) and discuss what kind of steps can be taken for the future to improve performance:

  • Debrief with team ASAP.
  • Explain impact without blame.
  • Invite ideas to improve.
  • Commend all ideas.

If your team does not respond well to mistakes and people blame and take a defensive stand, it’s best to sit with your team and set up the agreed behaviours going forward.

Make a team commitment. When someone does it differently (eg, talking behind someone’s back, blaming and not being constructive about the fixes) then refer back to the team commitment. If someone continually makes mistakes then it is your role to manage their performance – because that is a performance management problem.

If it’s your manager who blames – give feedback but be factual, not emotional.

If you are someone that tends to blame or talk behind someone’s back – try and be more constructive. It’s a great feeling to move forward without all the negative moody relationships at work.

Click here to view a video on Damage Control.

Eve Ash is author of Rewrite Your Life! and Rewrite Your Relationships! and producer of the DVD Leadership Sins, a 2009 release from the DIFFICULT PEOPLE & SITUATIONS series by SEVEN DIMENSIONS www.7dimensions.com.au

For more Eve Ash advice, click here.

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