To Lead is to Err: How to Own Your Mistakes

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Do you cringe thinking about the mistakes you’ve made?

If you have high standards for yourself, and I’m guessing if you’re listening to this podcast you do. These high standards, combined with any tendency to be hard on yourself, may cause you to want shy away from fully owning your mistakes.

It may be a knee-jerk reaction, to want to move on quickly, pretending the mistake didn’t happen. But as a leader, the best course of action is to own your mistake and learn from it.

Not only is it good for you as a leader, it’s good for the morale and performance of your team.  

This episode covers how to own your mistakes in a way that allows you and your team to grow in experience and trust.

To Lead is to Err

Last week’s episode focused on how to admit you don’t know without losing your credibility as a leader. This week’s episode is covering owning your mistakes.

These topics might be difficult to contemplate but they are important. Today, we’ll delve into this topic and I promise in the episodes to come, while being no less important, might not feel as uncomfortable to consider.

Being a leader is a very public position. You might not always be conscious of it, but you are always assessing your performance. And others are doing the same, whether they are always aware of it.

This can create a lot of pressure for you to always get things right. Because of this, it can make it difficult to admit when you have made mistakes or failed to deliver.

Yet, making mistakes or failing, is common. No one is immune to it.

What’s at Stake When You Don’t Own Your Mistakes

Part of your role as a leader is to hold your team accountable and address their mistakes when they happen. This is part of the reason why it is so important for you to hold yourself accountable when you are mistaken or fail in some capacity.

Ignoring your own mistakes can undermine team morale.

Also, if you are in a company that values creativity, innovation, or experimentation, having space for mistakes is required to foster those things. If you are a leader in such an organization, you need to demonstrate that mistakes are okay and not to be hidden or glossed over.

Regardless of your company culture, how you deal with your mistakes and failures make all the difference between gaining respect or losing it.

Owning Your Mistakes to Yourself

I recently shared an article on LinkedIn that had the 5 top tips to get yourself on a path to the C-Suite. Near the top of the list is owning your mistakes.

Owning your mistake means taking full responsibility for anything you did or did not do that lead to an error.

It also means refraining from looking around for someone or something to blame.

Now, we are human. There may be a moment or two after you realize you made a mistake where your mind will automatically try to make sense of the mistake. Instantly your mind is looking for an answer to the questions, what happened and how did this happen?

Your ego, and we all have one, will try to protect itself by frantically searching for someone or something to cast blame upon to alleviate any embarrassment or damage to your reputation.

Don’t beat yourself up if this happens. You are processing the information. However, you want to quickly redirect your mind to work on seeing where you contributed to the mistake.

If and when you realize you did indeed make a mistake, I’m breaking down for you what to do.

Reflect on What Caused the Mistake

Part of rebuilding trust is conveying that you have taken the time to reflect. You have examined the facts and identified some factors that led to your making a mistake.

This isn’t about making excuses. Facts are used as excuses when we are trying to shake off any responsibility.

If you are truly owning your responsibility, this is about discerning what caused you to make the mistake so you can make sure those conditions don’t contribute to future mistakes.

For example, on a day when you were rushing from meeting to meeting to meeting, you may have:

  • Forwarded an email to the wrong person 
  • Been terse with a team member who was trying to ask you a question
  • Been late to one of those meetings and stalled the meeting start time.

Now you know: having meetings stacked on top of each other is bad for business. Going forward you can set boundaries around these meetings. It may mean communicating to meeting facilitators ahead of time that you need leave a meeting early to go to another meeting. You can let your team know you’ll be unavailable the entire day.

Can you decline one or two of these meetings? If not, could you send one of your team members to represent you for a certain meeting so your schedule isn’t overloaded?

This could also be a great opportunity to pull your team in to be a part of the solution. Could they help you brainstorm how to handle or prevent this situation in the future?

When your team is part of the solution, they experience having more agency at work.

Once you discern what caused the problem, come up with one or more solutions, and communicate that solution when you are apologizing.

Take Responsibility for Your Mistakes with Others

If others were impacted directly or indirectly by your mistake, a sincere apology goes a long way. Your apology needs to acknowledge what you did or failed to do, the resulting consequences, and the impact it had on the people involved.

It may take thinking about the situation from other people’s perspectives. Our own perspective has blind spots so, if you are unsure of the fallout, consider asking others if and how they were impacted by the mistake.

There are some circumstances where an apology can be done in a message. However, they are few and far between. Don’t add insult to injury by thinking you can hide behind a computer screen to make the delivery less painful for you. An apology is not about you. It’s about repairing the relationship with another person and rebuilding trust.

When in doubt apologize in person, via video conference or over the phone.

Lastly, Apply What You’ve learned

Walk your talk as a leader. This is absolutely the way to rebuild trust. All the conversations are the start of it. They release the pressure valves on any tension that might have come about as a consequence of the mistake. 

How you behave going forward will continue to cultivate trust, or it will undermine all your efforts.

To err is human, to own the error is divine.

If you need help with this, let’s chat!

If your last promotion left you feeling unstable in your leadership role, or you are looking to develop into your next role, I invite you to consider working with me. You will be support you through the transition, and confident in your leadership once again. Schedule a meeting to chat with me.

Going to ask your company to sponsor you to work with a coach? This checklist will help you to prepare for that conversation.

As always, I hope this was of value to you, and here’s to your success!


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