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When Leaders Make Mistakes

Learn to accept responsibility and turn errors into learning opportunities.

A man in a yellow suit is pointing his fingers at a group of people.

​Everyone makes mistakes, even business leaders. But not every high-level executive wants to fess up to his or her shortcomings. 

When leaders don’t take responsibility for their errors, it can have a negative effect on employee morale, says Julie Gurner, an executive performance coach in New York City. 

Many business leaders focus on developing their business skills but not their people skills, making it harder for them to admit fault when they should, she says.

Here are practical tips to help leaders who struggle with how to respond after they’ve made a mistake. 

Own your mistake. If leaders lose their temper or blame others, they should admit their error and apologize. Team members get frustrated when a leader holds them accountable but glosses over or refuses to take responsibility for his or her own mistakes, says Richard Orbé-​Austin, a psychologist and partner at Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting LLP in New York City and co-author of Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life (Ulysses Press, 2020). 

Ignoring a mistake can be demoralizing and corrosive to the team.

“We’re all human, and we all make mistakes,” says Tammy Perkins, chief people officer at PMI Worldwide, a Seattle-based food and beverage container manufacturer. “Keep in mind that the moment you say or do something, it becomes a fact with your employees, so it’s important that you own it and take responsibility for it.” 

The worst thing leaders can do is to minimize their mistake, ignore it or try to blame it on others. “A sincere apology can make a difference in your relationship with your team and reinforce trust,” Perkins says. Leaders should make a straightforward apology with no qualifications, she and other experts say. For example:

“I’m sorry that I …” (Explain the mistake.)

“I understand that it caused …” (Explain the impact.)

“I can only imagine what impact it caused to …” (Explain how it affected a specific person or group.)

Manage your reaction. If leaders don’t confront and control their emotions, it will be difficult to communicate the problem and solution clearly to their team, says Brooke Wachtler, a licensed psychologist and president and founder of BEW Consulting and Training LLC in New York City. 

“When we make mistakes, it’s normal to feel frustrated, embarrassed or ashamed,” she says. “But if we let these emotions drive our reactions, we aren’t going to be as effective at problem-solving and communicating.” 

Beware of your blind spots. Instead of insisting on being right or blaming others for an error, leaders should consider alternative viewpoints and be willing to accept new information, even if it contradicts their current beliefs.

Leaders will often make assumptions about the mistake, why it happened and who caused it because they’re viewing the situation from their own perspective, says Jennifer Quasha Deinard, a certified professional coach and founder of Jot Coaching & Consulting LLC in Greenwich, Conn. 

“When we’re assessing a situation, we have to make an effort to make sure there aren’t any gaps in our thinking,” she says. Leaders should take time to clarify what actually happened by asking the people they’re working with to share their recollection of events.

Determine why the mistake was made. Before leaders talk with staff, they should take time to reflect on their mistake, identifying what it was and how it happened, Deinard says. 

“Clarify what happened, clarify how it happened and determine what exactly has to happen next for those issues to be resolved,” she says.

Communicate clearly. It’s important for leaders to be as clear as possible when discussing their mistakes with colleagues and team members. Before meeting with staff, they should know exactly what they want to say. Wachtler recommends leaders be able to outline the following:

  • Clearly define the mistake.
  • State the necessary next steps to recover from the mistake.
  • Delegate those steps.
  • Seek input from their team on how to move forward and avoid the same mistake from happening again.

Leaders should also evaluate the magnitude of the mistake and admit what damage it might have caused. “Don’t be afraid to process the issue and to communicate in the most transparent way possible,” Orbé-Austin says. Team members will appreciate the candor and will be more committed to their leader as a result.

Turn mistakes into learning opportunities. Leaders who adopt a growth mindset know that mistakes are part of the process. They and their teams can learn from blunders and slip-ups. Admitting to mistakes can set the stage for an open dialogue with employees and team members, Perkins says. It also acknowledges that no one is infallible.

“People will respect you when you’re honest and show that you’re human,” she says. 

In fact, employees believe their direct supervisor is more effective when he or she frames failures and mistakes as growth opportunities, according to the results of the Ethics and Compliance Initiative’s 2019 Global Business Ethics Survey. 

After analyzing what went wrong and why, leaders should embrace the parts of the analysis that can help them grow and develop.

“Share with colleagues and staff an important work/life lesson that you learned from this mistake, which also will humanize you and help people to connect with and relate to you,” says Anahid Lisa Derbabian, a licensed professional counselor in Troy, Mich.

Fix the problem. Mistakes are often symptomatic of a greater problem that needs to be addressed. Once leaders understand why the mistake happened, they can create a process to help avoid similar errors in the future. 

Some mistakes aren’t as cut and dried as forgetting to tell the team that a deadline changed or transposing a number in a balance sheet. 

Some are more difficult to pinpoint, such as allowing confusion to rule on a team, running unfocused or unproductive meetings, making poor hiring and firing decisions, or failing to give and receive feedback, says Mike McHargue, principal consultant at management consulting firm The Table Group in Lafayette, Calif., and author of Rookie Mistakes: Advice for Top Executives on Five Critical Leadership Errors (Aloha Publishing, 2018).

When employees are asked to describe their favorite leaders, they often use words such as humble, apologetic, transparent and willing to ask for help, McHargue says. 

“The best leaders are willing to be vulnerable and say to their team, ‘Here’s a mistake I made, and here’s how we’re going to fix it.’ ”  

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.


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