Everybody Makes Mistakes!

Here are 7 tips on how high-performance leaders handle their own and others mistakes

What do Post-It-Notes, Coca-Cola, Columbus and Liquid Paper all have in common? Mistakes.

Post-It-Notes came about because the scientist creating it didn't get the stickiness of the glue quite right. Coke was meant to be a medicinal tonic. Columbus set off for Asia and landed in America, and Liquid Paper was invented, in a kitchen, by a typist who wasn't very good at typing! (Here's a fun fact for you -- if you were a fan of the 1960s tv show "The Monkees" this typist is Mike Nesmith's mother, Betty)

In this article we aren't focused on mistakes caused by a consistent lack of attention to detail or plain sloppy work.  For these types of mistakes, see our Successful Feedback training.

Here we are more focused on mistakes that come from people experimenting. Or, when they make a genuine error due to lack of judgment or experience.


Are you guilty of making people feel defensive when they've made a mistake?

So what? Here's so what. Everybody makes mistakes, and you'll not get through your career without being faced with having to handle mistakes of your own or of those who report through to you.

High-performance leaders are different from the average leader because they aren't afraid of mistakes. They recognize that being at the leading edge means that sometimes 'stuff' happens.

Here are seven things you need to practice, so you get good at handling mistakes.

1. Understand the impact you want to make 

Being a high-performance leader means you will have spent time understanding the dent you want to make in the universe ... the legacy you want to leave behind. Access the My Career, My Choice program if you want to fine-tune your capability and clarity around your leadership.

Because you were drawn to this particular website, (out of the thousands of other sites on the internet about leadership), it is highly likely that the 'dent you want to make in the universe', will probably have something to do with being inspired to be the best possible version of yourself; and inspiring others to be at their best...

When this is your guiding principle for how you lead, then you're better equipped to handle mistakes, and more likely to use some of the other tips in this article. 

2. Make sure you are a model of trustworthiness and great character

People want to know they can trust you no matter the situation.

Recently one of my awesome coaching clients spoke about not entirely trusting her manager (David). She was contrasting him with another more senior leader (Peter) in her organization.

She said "When I make a mistake, I'm never sure that David has got my back. I feel he would leave me high and dry. In a similar situation, I know I can trust Peter to let others know he believes in my capability and, this was simply an error, that will be rectified by me ... with his full support."

What this client was saying, was that she felt David would blame her, whereas Peter would focus on Fix, Learn, Move on.

It is a reflection of your self-worth in how you treat mistakes (yours or others).

If you lay blame, justify, make excuses, then you are operating "below the line." Which won't instill confidence in anyone (including yourself). Read more about 'being below the line.'

High-Performance Leadership Tip

Plenty of other smart, bright, successful people have made mistakes ...

and a high self-worth person knows this.

3. When others make a mistake let them be part of the solution

There is nothing more demoralizing and insulting than having someone tell you that your work is inadequate, and then that person excludes you from rectifying the issue ... by just going ahead and fixing it themselves.

High-Performance Leadership Tip

Avoid the impulse to go and fix the problem yourself.

This is particularly challenging if you are under deadline pressures from other quarters (eg. Clients, Senior Leadership, other Departments).


4. There is never failure only learning

When you focus on learning from the mistake, it accelerates growth. It's the losers limp if you play it so safe that you can't possibly make a mistake and learn from it. Throughout history, every great mind never got it right the first time.

IBM turned down Betty Nesmith Graham - the inventor of Liquid Paper - when she offered to sell her invention to them. For 17 years she continued to sell her product from her garage. In 1979 Gillette bought Liquid Paper for $47.5 million plus royalties! IBM has a history of turning away ideas that go on to revolutionize the world.

Mistakes mean you are moving. No movement means stagnation, which eventually leads to obliteration.

If you don't learn from the mistake - well that will lead to extinction too!

5. Criticize the mistake, not the person

If you attack/criticize the person, you can't honestly expect anything other than frustration, resentment, and hiding. You will find that next time something goes wrong; they will hide it from you.

It is rare that when someone makes a mistake that they aren't already feeling bad. You won't gain anything by rubbing salt in the wound.

You build loyalty and commitment when you don't equate mistakes with being a mistake.

6. Focus on the fix

When mistakes happen, focus on how you are going to remedy the situation, both for the long and short term. Only use a problem-solving approach, (that helps you to work out the causes and put in place systems and techniques that enable it to be avoided in the future), when you are faced with a process, mechanical or surgical type problem.

And, for best performance, when you are using a problem-solving approach, your focus is on fixing the cause not the problem. It's a lot more efficient to teach your children to use the toilet than to change diapers for the rest of their life!

However, the problem-solving approach is more-often-than-not, not the best approach. For the rest of the time, when you are in the chaotic, messy world of people then use a solutions focus approach to getting things moving in the direction you want.

7. Let others know

Inform the appropriate people quickly. It's best they hear from you than from others. Let them know what's happened and how you plan to fix the issue. The worst mistake you can make is trying to cover up. That will lead to tears.

Don't let the reaction of others dictate how you respond. If you report to someone who is a poor role model (e.g. very much a blame type person), don't let their poor response stop you from being a high-performance leader in how you handle mistakes.

Be secure in the knowledge that everybody makes mistakes. As long as you are learning and growing from the experience, you will enhance your effectiveness in the long-term.

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