Learning From Mistakes

10 Ways Leaders Fix Mistakes Without Making It Worse

Dealing with mistakes could mean a cover-up or blame shifting or actually improving things so it doesn't happen again.
10 Ways Leaders Fix Mistakes Without Making It Worse
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Author of A Paperboy's Fable: The 11 Principles of Success
8 min read
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Mistakes are a painful part of life, and we’ve heard over and over again that failure is part of the learning process. But if you’re a business leader, that doesn’t make it any easier to know how to handle that ginormous blunder you made at work, or that lesser, boneheaded flub you’d rather just ignore.

It can be embarrassing to own up to a mistake, and unfortunately many believe that doing so is a sign of weakness. But good leaders know that the bigger mistake is trying to cover it up or ignore it. Problems have a way of coming to light. The true test is how you handle these slip-ups.

Admitting to an mistake, fixing the problem and ensuring it won’t happen again can actually strengthen your relationships with clients and colleagues if it’s handled in the proper manner. It’s not as hard as you think. Here are 10 ways that good leaders admit to mistakes and correct the problem before it gets worse.

1. Foster open lines of communication.

Good leaders know mistakes are going to happen -- it’s inevitable. They recognize that the traditional company mantra, “Don't come to your boss with problems, come with solutions,” can backfire by prompting people to want to hide mistakes or errors.

Instead of creating a team of problem solvers who are working together to resolve issues, this out-of-touch philosophy pushes people to diminish or camouflage whatever issues they’re facing. Good leaders work to create an open team dynamic with honest, open lines of communication, not a culture of fear and perfection.

2. Be transparent about problems and mistakes.

Leaders who solve problems quickly and efficiently value transparency in their interactions. They have holistic approaches and cross-collaboration within their business when dealing with problems. They don’t allow hidden agendas to run rampant and become toxic.

When a mistake or problem comes to light, good leaders resolve to deal with the issue head-on by sharing information with others within the organization, so the problem doesn’t spread further.

They make it clear that when something goes wrong, it must be addressed and corrected. They make sure to empower employees to offer their ideas and solutions, which may result in a quick fix that wouldn’t have been considered otherwise.

Related: 4 Reasons You Need to Embrace Transparency in the Workplace

3. Be the first to acknowledge your mistake.

As a business leader, few things are worse than realizing you made a cringe-worthy mistake. It’s embarrassing and awkward. It’s also part of life. It may be tempting to want to sweep it under the rug, but now is the time to showcase your integrity by being upfront about what happened. Be the first to break the news.

Letting those you work with know what’s going on can feel agonizing, but it’s like pulling off a Band-Aid. Just get it over with. You may think admitting to a major blunder will create misgivings about your leadership, but it will actually increase people’s confidence in you, especially if you continue to follow the other advice in this list.

4. Don’t minimize the damage or seriousness.

A true and complete remedy for the problem won’t be found until you know the total damage. This is why it’s crucial you don’t minimize the problem or downplay its seriousness. Having to come back and confess that a problem was actually much bigger than you let on will erase the credibility you were beginning to rebuild.

Come clean by stating the full extent of the problem. That way, everyone will be on the same page and you can come up with a plan to handle it. If you cover it up, sooner or later the bigger issue will become apparent. If anything, you want to overstate potential difficulties. Better to have overemphasized a problem and have it turn out to be less of an issue than make light of it, only to have it blow up in your face.

Related:Minimize the Impact of Your Mistakes With These 6 Strategies

5. Own the problem, even if you didn’t cause it.

Great leaders apologize and take the lead in accepting responsibility for problems. They don’t try to pass the problem off on someone else. Even if you didn’t directly cause the problem or the mistake wasn’t specifically yours, as a leader, you must be accountable for what happens below you. Passing the buck makes you look like you're avoiding the problem.

By being answerable for the problem and showing humility in expressing regret that it happened, you demonstrate your strength and authority as a leader. However, there is no need to publically beat yourself up. As long as you have fully owned and explained the problem, don’t make things more awkward by engaging in self-loathing. Put your effort into finding a solution to fix the problem.

6. Offer ways to fix the problem.

The next step is to figure out what happened and offer as much information and data as you can to achieve a complete diagnosis of the problem. Be upfront, and communicate any insights you have and any countermeasures you believe could help. This is also an opportunity to reframe the problem.

That doesn’t mean you should make an excuse for why it happened. Rather, explain in a non-defensive way what led to the mistake and why it happened. It’s important that others understand what was going on externally and internally, what was in your control and what wasn’t.

Now is also the time to begin gathering input and advice from others so you can come up with a solution, and ensure that anyone who is impacted understands the corrective actions being taken.

7. Ask for feedback.

If things have blown up in a horrific way, there’s a good chance this isn’t a problem you’re going to be able to fix solo, and you may actually make things worse if you try. Ask for feedback from your team, your boss and your clients -- anyone who is involved or can offer insight into what happened and how it impacted them.

Having a strong support network can come in handy right about now, to give you perspective on the situation and advice on what you can do to recover. Every bit of feedback, good or bad, pushes us to ask how can we do better. If you are consistently asking how you can do better, you will continue to do better.

Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback

8. Learn from your mistakes.

We all make mistakes. The question is whether you spend the effort to gain valuable insight from your misstep. Failure is educational, and even necessary in many ways, but that doesn’t mean you want to repeat the same mistake over and over.

Take time to dissect and analyze the error. What did you expect and what actually happened? Is there a pattern of miscalculation? Pay attention to the bigger lesson. Take constructive action to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

9. Put safeguards in place.

After you take steps to correct the mistake, make sure you put safeguards in place to ensure that the error won’t be repeated. Do everything in your power to teach others from this situation.

Yes, you’ve learned from this mishap, and hopefully those around you did as well, but it’s possible that someone who wasn’t involved could come along and do the same thing. Figure out what additional safety nets, training or procedures should be included from now on to ward against this issue arising the future.

10. Move beyond your mistakes.

You’ve done your best to remedy the situation and ensure it won’t happen again. You’ve learned your lesson, and you’ve sought the advice of those you trust. Now it’s time to make peace with it, get your head in the game and get back to business.

Your self-confidence may have taken a hit through all this, and you may feel uncertain and overly cautious about moving forward. But don’t let yourself fall into a slump. Don’t let fear and self-doubt hold you back. What happened is done. The sooner you jump back in, the sooner you can put those valuable lessons to work. Giving yourself a little distance will help you put the mistake into perspective. Time to move on and focus on the future.

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