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When You or Your Workers Make Mistakes—What to Do?

A woman is looking at her laptop with her hand on her head.

​Everyone makes mistakes, including managers. If you or someone who works for you makes a mistake, what should you do? The following are some ideas to stimulate your thinking.

Recovering from Your Mistakes

If you make a mistake:

  1. Take ownership for the mistake. Do not attempt to shift the blame to others. Admitting responsibility is far better than having responsibility pinned on you as you try to shift blame. Take responsibility and move on to doing any needed damage control.
  2. Take action to correct the mistake and identify a means to prevent or minimize similar mistakes in the future.
  3. What did you learn from the mistake? Mistakes and failures are great learning and personal growth opportunities. Take the time to reflect—be honest with yourself and learn from the experience. Learn and move on. Don't let the mistake paralyze you.

Mistakes by Your People

People who work for you will make mistakes. Unless the mistake resulted from gross negligence or laziness, you don't want to berate or diminish them. It can harm their self-confidence and self-efficacy. While ensuring people are held accountable for their behavior and performance, use the mistake as a learning opportunity. Unless the mistake requires immediate attention, I recommend making it a teaching moment.

As an instructor pilot in the Navy, I taught student pilots how to fly on instruments. Unable to see outside the aircraft, they had to fly strictly by the instruments. Occasionally, upon returning to the Naval Air Station, they would mistakenly dial in the navigation frequency for the nearby civilian airport. Many of my fellow instructors often would say to the student, "Are you sure you have the correct frequency dialed in?" The students would check and realize their mistake and make the correction. But I have found that telling someone the answer is usually quickly forgotten, often leading to repeating the mistake.

So, because students could not hear my radio conversations, I would call the civilian tower, and they usually permitted me to fly to their airport until I reached 500 feet of altitude. Consequently, I didn't tell students they had the wrong landing frequency. When I told them to "pop the hood" and see where they were, they were shocked to see they were landing at the wrong airport. I would instruct them to climb to altitude. When students experience their mistake (rather than being advised they may be making a mistake), they embed the learning deep into their subconscious. I never had a student repeat the mistake.

When I was in a senior civilian leadership position, I took a similar approach using the following four-step process.

1. Have the individual acknowledge the mistake and explain what happened in the process.  Example: My executive assistant forgot to notify an executive before sending a document. She explained that she was distracted by a visitor and forgot to inform the executive when she returned to the job. I didn't ask, "What did you do wrong?" This question will cause a defensive reaction. Instead, I asked, "What went wrong with the process?" Of course, she was part of the process. In implementing this approach, people were not reluctant to come to me or their managers and supervisors and acknowledge their mistakes.

2. Have the individual explain the ramifications of the mistake. Many subordinates do not know the magnitude or ramifications of their mistake. In most cases, they underestimate the potential impact of their error. Like the instructor pilot example above, I don't tell them. I ask them to explain. If they do not know, I ask them to discuss it with others in the organization and determine what they thought the impact would be and provide me with their conclusion. This forces them to enter a learning mode. They must expend energy to learn. They are more likely to remember what they learned because of their direct participation in identifying the answer or solution. In this case, my assistant didn't know. I asked her to check with others in the office. She returned with what I thought was a 70 percent answer. At this point, I didn't tell her the answer. Rather, I asked her open-ended questions to help guide her thinking to a more complete answer or solution.

3. Have the individual present a proposal to avoid making the mistake again. Again, if the individual doesn't have a solution, I will not give them one. I ask them to visit with others and develop a solution that will work for them. If they come up with a solution (and I deem it a reasonable solution), she is more likely to implement it effectively. In steps 2 and 3, the individual is learning what to do—not told what to do. 

4. Have the individual evaluate lessons learned from the experience. Based on the experience, I ask the individual what they learned from the process. Are there other areas they can apply the learning?

You and others will make mistakes. How you respond will either enhance or diminish personal and organizational performance.

James Browning is the author of Embracing Senior Leadership: Three Critical Factors Needed To Reach The C-Suite and Thrive (Universal Publishers, 2022) He served as director of the Navy's worldwide leadership development programs, was founder and chief of the Library of Congress Corporate University, and was chairman of the Department of Strategic Leadership at the Eisenhower School in Washington, D.C.


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