Mistakes. They come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. From the basic “Whoops, I forgot to email that information” to the high-on-the-Richter-scale magnitude of “Oh crap, I just emailed the entire company’s compensation file to the wrong person.”
There’s the kind that are accidental slips of the fingers on the keyboard, usually caused by being too rushed or not paying attention. Quite often there’s a gun to the head involved, either a deadline or a freaking out client. Or not enough caffeine after too much alcohol the night before. In some cases it’s caused by a number of martinis at lunch time, which I’ve seen before from a former colleague, but that’s a whole other story for another day.
There are mistakes that are made, that we couldn’t have possibly anticipated, despite all the planning and calculating of minimizing risk. After weeks of exploring, analyzing and background checking, you take that new job or hire that new employee and low and behold, weeks later, you discover you’ve made a terrible mistake. Or in one instance in my game of career move checkers, the first day on the job I realized I’d misjudged and made a mistake. The first clue in a series of incrementally expanding ones was being handed a time-card to punch, and this was a mid-level professional, salaried job. Uh oh.
Mistakes. We all make them, we all face them, and we all deal with them. Usually we move on from them. The paths we take are shaped by them. And oftentimes, the baggage we carry down those paths is related to our feelings around our mistakes, the choices that led to them, and the consequences of them. That and the grudges we sometimes carry from mistakes; more often than not, we beat ourselves up over and over again about our mistakes while “Oh, that’s okay, could happen to anyone” flies out of our mouths easily to those who screw stuff up for us.
So how can we navigate through life, steering around and sometimes into mistakes, those icebergs that inevitably pop up unavoidably? And after slamming into a mistake iceberg, how do we move on, still afloat, without going down in icy waters in the middle of the night like the Titanic? And how is it, by the way, that despite there being enough room on the raft for two people, that Jack froze to death while Rose survived? Because he made a mistake in being chivalrous and not insisting that she shove over and make room. And oh my GOSH why did Rose make the decision to toss a huge diamond into the ocean? Now that, in my opinion, was a monumental mistake. But I digress.
So I’ve hit a mistake iceberg. What do I do now?
First off, I’m going to own my mistake. It’s hard to do it, but owning it, claiming it by admitting it to myself first and then communicating it to any impacted party who needs to know (like my boss, because no surprises is the best way to operate) in a non-blaming, forward-thinking, solutions-oriented conversation, is the necessary first step. “Here’s what’s happened, here’s what should have happened, here’s how I’ve fixed it (or will fix it), and here’s what I’ve done to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.” There’s no need to beat yourself up, especially not in front of others, however, if you normally have real, honest conversations with your colleagues, occasionally admitting to having been a dumbass or effing something up actually increases your value as a trustworthy and honest individual, rather than a jerk who hides their mistakes. Seriously. Dumbass – toss it around a couple times a year about yourself (save it for some whopping screw ups) and your credibility factor increases. Owning up to our mistakes keeps us on the path of authenticity and there’s freedom to getting the truth of the situation off our chests. Just don’t make it a daily or hourly thing, or then you really are a dumbass.
Once I own my mistake, I need to release it. I’ve done it, I’ve acknowledged it, I’ve rectified it, I’ve learned from it, and now I am going to release it. Releasing it means not beating myself up over it, all the way home in the car or on the GO train or wherever I am. Releasing it means not talking about it again to my colleagues or my boss. And it definitely means not raising it again for another discussion at performance review time. There’s a huge difference between owning a mistake and torpedoing one’s career with it. That’s why we need to release it. It’s in the past and we need to focus on the present so we can avoid making new mistakes. Or the same mistake again.
After I’ve released my mistake, I move on. Again, not resuscitating it for further analysis. Oh that screw up? That was ages ago. Years ago. I was far more inexperienced when that happened. (Okay, maybe it was only last week, but I have matured and grown from it.) Release it. Let it go. It’s over, it’s gone, it’s in the past, like a bad ex-boyfriend.
This process is scary as it makes us vulnerable. Let’s face it – when we admit mistakes, we expose ourselves to others’ judgement of us. But if we handle our mistakes properly by admitting, rectifying, and resolving them, the judgement is limited. Chances are, we’re not going to get fired. But there’s honesty in vulnerability. There’s actually greater vulnerability in not admitting to the mistake because by burying it, chances are, you’ll be facing a larger and scarier version of the situation down the road, and then you’ll be more than vulnerable, you'll be stuck. Or effed, depending on the magnitude of the mess.
This leads to the next point – it’s important to be truthful in admitting our mistakes. There’s truth in the admission itself, but beyond this, by speaking the truth about what’s happened and how you’ve sorted out the situation, it’s liberating to get the mistake off your chest. It’s out there in the world now and chances are, however badly you’re seeing the situation, if you’ve handled it with grace and professionalism, it’s nowhere near as bad as you think it is.
By following these steps through the process of handling mistakes, we create trust. We trust ourselves more and others trust that we will be honest in our work. We all can trust that when we make another mistake, we can handle it properly. When there’s greater trust in the workplace and in our relationships, we can better focus on what needs to get done. We can do our work well and enjoy what we’re doing. Because really, isn’t that what it’s all about?