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Did You Make a Big Mistake at Work – What Now?

Admitting a mistake can actually make us more credible

What….you’re not perfect? How can that be? Join the club. Everyone makes mistakes, from the most seasoned professional to the associate who just started last week. It’s just that some of us are better at hiding those mistakes than others are. And that’s actually the first thing to NOT do….hide the mistake. 

No one is proud of having made a mistake, making a bad call, using poor judgment, or underestimating what a particular outcome might be. But as with all relationships, the foundation to an effective relationship is trust. And hiding anything works against building that trust (except maybe if you’re planning a surprise birthday party for someone). 

I learned a very important lesson on this topic as a young manager early in my career. I worked in the medical industry and part of my role was to put together agreements with contracted physician groups. Now this was back in the day of the typewriter, before we had electronic records. I know….some of you are thinking, “How old ARE you?”  We were working on an agreement that was literally being passed back and forth between our organization and a particular physician group, each side making their suggestions and edits. Everything was moving along fine until one day the contract went missing! No one could find it, and remember, there was not an electronic copy of this document. People started pointing the finger stating, “I remember giving it to her” or “I think he was the last one to have it.” Yet none of the finger pointing helped. No one could find the missing contract.  

A deadline was looming to have this contract in place and so we painstakingly recreated the entire contract from scratch. You can imagine how frustrated everyone was with this rework. Never-the-less, the new contract was completed on time and put in place, and both sides got over their irritation.

Several months later, I was working late one night and looking for a certain document. I found the document in my desk drawer and as I pulled it out, paper clipped to the back of that document was the missing contract! How could that be? I had it the whole time? My first thought was, “They are going to fire me.” I kept replaying in my mind how frustrated everyone was that this contract had been lost. And I was certain I did not have it. Well, I did. And I was sick about it. I thought about just throwing it away. The time had passed. People were over it. And I didn’t want anyone to know that I was the culprit and that I had made a mistake. 

But after thinking about it that evening, I decided to come clean. While I’d love to say it was because of my impeccable character, at my young age, it was probably more driven because of my fear that someone would eventually find out anyway, and then my attempt to cover it up would make things even worse.

I remember vividly walking down to my bosses office the next day and saying “Doctor Yenchick, you’re going to kill me” as I handed him the missing contract. I will never forget his response. He looked and the contract and then looked up at me and said “I’m proud of you Todd, I think I would have just thrown it away!” We both laughed and I told him that idea had certainly crossed my mind.

How Dr. Yenchick treated me that day and more importantly, how he treated me AFTER that day taught me volumes about the importance of admitting our mistakes. How important it is to behave in a way that earns people’s trust even when on one is looking. We may think that making mistakes deteriorates or destroys trust, but admitting those mistakes before they are discovered actually builds the very trust that can make us more credible. 

Now certainly making the same type of mistake repeatedly will in fact hurt your credulity. But as long as you are learning from the mistakes as you go, and not repeating them, you will continually build trust with others.

While there is rarely a “one size fits all” solution to every situation, I’ve seen these basic steps work amazingly well time and time again, when a mistake, any mistake, has been made. 

  1. Own the mistake 
  2. Admit the mistake
  3. Apologize for the mistake  
  4. Learn from the mistake and share those learnings so others have confidence the mistake won’t be made again 

So, welcome to the club of those who make mistakes!  You’re in good company.

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