How to Learn from Mistakes at Work

Mistakes at Work Happen – It Is How You React that Counts

It is OK to make mistakes. From James Joyce, who called mistakes “the portals of discovery”, to Mahatma Gandhi, who said freedom was not worth having if it did not include the freedom to make mistakes, successful people the world over agree blunders can be a good thing.

“Well, that’s easy for them to say”, you might think. Once you have revolutionised the Western novel or liberated the Indian subcontinent, you can make mistakes all day long if you like. But if you are at the bottom of the career ladder with everything to play for, things look rather different. Making mistakes at work can be acutely embarrassing. Such failures can bring severe consequences. Learning from them quickly can save you future pain.

Reflecting on your actions is the way forward. Once you understand why you made that mistake, steps can be taken to prevent a repeat.

Mistakes at Work

Analyse What Happened

Once you have determined what went wrong, tell the right people as soon as possible. Part of ownership is understanding when to speak, when to stay silent, and who deserves to be told. As soon as you know that you have made a mistake, give your boss or your board of directors a subtle heads-up that a situation is unfolding and that you’re aware of, in charge of, and working on fixing. They need to know they can trust you to be up front – the worst thing would be for them to find out from someone else.

Next, take an objective look at the mistake. Which exact steps were taken or missed? What were the actual (not anxiously imagined) results? Breaking down the event this way makes it easier to explain. You can pinpoint who did or said what. The when and how come next. Note as many details as needed to reconstruct accurately.

Your actions were undoubtedly affected by multiple factors. Knowledge and beliefs, for instance. Personal motivations too. Pressure may well have been a factor. An eagerness to please perhaps? Without uncovering these, your analysis will lack pivotal data. You may reveal the offending incidents. But you will not fully appreciate the causes.

But whatever happens – own up. Sometimes, shouldering the blame for mistakes at work shows integrity and could even boost your career, But it is important to pick your moment. And whatever you do, own up before your hand is forced.

Making mistakes at work

It Is Not You Fall Down – It Is How You Get Up

Once the storm has blown over, how do you pick up the pieces, learn the lessons and make sure the mistake does not recur? No matter the mistake, examine the outcome and make mental (or physical) notes that will prevent it from happening again. Your colleagues need to know that you are capable of assessing the mistake and moving forward before they will trust you enough to continue following you. And your bosses need evidence that you are completely in control and can turn things around based on an objective evaluation of what went wrong. Beyond repairing the mistake, your reputation needs fixing as well. Being viewed as unreliable (or worse, sloppy and incompetent) is a career killer.

Here’s a Little Insiders’ Tip

Good employees make mistakes. A good manager allows them to. A great boss will give you the freedom to make mistakes. Whilst some mistakes can certainly be costly, truly great leaders will find ways to allow their people to take these risks.

No one likes mistakes, and you should probably think twice before typing up a new section of your CV entitled “Portals of discovery.” But we all do it. Every one of us. If we are not making mistakes, then we likely are not trying enough new things outside our comfort zone, and that itself is a mistake. That process is the best way to learn and grow as a person. As John Wooden once said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”

Mistakes are the pathway to great ideas and innovation. Mistakes are the stepping stones to moving outside the comfort zone to the growing zone where new discoveries are made, and great lessons are learned. Mistakes are not failures; they are simply the process of eliminating ways that will not work in order to come closer to the ways that will.

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