Ooops! Atoning for A Mistake

Ever made a mistake at work? No? Then you’re one of the few, lucky players. I’ve made some really big ones in my career, but I’ve tried to not make the same mistake twice.

Years ago I was delivering a culture keynote, twice in back-to-back sessions. The client was a sales group and, to prepare, I had done some research on their organization. Their company had been fined a year before for what was described as an “ethical lapse.” I thought that I might refer to this  lapse when we discussed values alignment during my program.

The first session went beautifully with participants delving into discussions and sharing insights about our culture change process. They welcomed the chance to look at the past year’s issue from the perspective of how potential customers or employees might think of their organization’s values.

The second session was going equally well . . . until I raised the issue of the “ethical lapse.” The reaction was powerful and immediate. Participants told me that raising that issue was unfair, they had moved past it, and they were not at all interested in looking at it any further. The success of the first session’s discussion gave me confidence to push them harder to apply learnings from the lapse. It blew up in my face! They left my session, right then and there, en masse.

I was totally surprised at their reaction AND I knew I had wrongly discounted their initial reaction. If I had read that resistance more effectively, I could easily have moved to another example to make my point. I didn’t do that, and left them no alternative (from their perspective).

I apologized to the client (who had observed both sessions). I immediately contacted the salesperson to let them know what happened. After the salesperson discussed the situation with the main client contact, we agreed to not charge the client for any of my services that day. It was the right thing to do in this circumstance.

It was an expensive lesson. I’ve never made that mistake again – and believe that I am a much better “listener” and “reader” of my audiences because of that mistake.

Mistakes can happen when:

  • we underestimate the time necessary to deliver what was promised,
  • we overestimate our expertise to deliver what was promised,
  • we discount the reality around us (this is what happened to me in the scenario above),
  • we’re trying brand new solutions to a problem, or
  • we’re not fully present when working on the goal or task.

When mistakes are made when you are blazing new trails, they’re part of the learning process. Those aren’t the type of mistakes that we’re discussing here.

Once a mistake is made, the temptation to “cover it up” can be great. The best solution is to, as quickly as possible, share what happened and what you plan to do to address the situation.

You may have to negotiate for more time, or, if that’s not possible, you may have to spend the required time to meet the deadline with a high quality product or service. This kind of resolution can make for long nights – but it’s the right thing to do.

You may have to cover costs of your mistake – maybe not you personally but your team or department may have to take the hit.

Your mistake may cost others time, energy, and even reputation – that’s why you must “come clean” as soon as possible, and rectify your mistake as soon as possible.

Team members value honesty and integrity from their peers. Mistakes will be made. Do the right thing to explain the situation, describe your plan to address it, and then deliver on that plan.


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