How to effectively respond to mistakes

Every business, every organization, and every person makes mistakes. Safe to say, wherever you find humans, you will find mistakes. Perennial reasons for mistakes include: we make wrong assumptions, underestimate critical factors, lose patience and act in haste, don't follow-up, don't communicate effectively, ignore warning signs ... the list could go on.

From a management and leadership perspective, the question is not whether mistakes will be made, but how they will be handled. I was inspired recently by one of my clients who told me about a mistake his company had made. In this instance, the mistake was a serious financial error made at the senior management level. The company's leaders were exemplary in their response to the situation. I would propose that the principles embodied in this story apply to almost any mistake, whether by an individual or an organization.

 First and foremost, there was no "blame fest." Too often when something goes wrong, people try to find someone to blame. (As a point of contrast, our national political scene has largely degraded to this level, and the vacuity of this approach is self-evident.) In this case, there were errors made and the people involved were mature and honest enough to say "mea culpa." Taking responsibility means having the character to admit, to ourselves and others if appropriate, that we were at fault. When someone acknowledges responsibility for a mistake, it makes it much easier to move forward.

Second, the management team as a whole moved into a creative problem solving mode, evaluating a variety of factors and exploring possible solutions. The instructive point is that the team pulled together in a crisis. Instead of the difficulties serving to fragment and disconnect the people involved, the opposite happened. Teamwork was strengthened, not weakened, by the mistake.

Senior management then took a third critical step: pooling their collective expertise, wisdom and judgment to develop their action plan. As consensus was reached, everyone on the management team agreed to the remediation plan. They developed their plan in a timely manner, not in haste or panic, but with the dispatch appropriate to the situation.

Next, the leaders met with the employees to explain what had happened. This illustrates the important fourth step in the process: communicating with those affected by the situation. Top management publicly acknowledged the mistake and their responsibility for having made it. The employees had an opportunity to ask questions and gain an understanding of the issues. In this case, the ramifications of the mistake and the steps necessary to remedy the situation were significant. Communication with employees was thoughtfully planned, timely, and candid.

Having found a solution and then communicating effectively with employees, the work ahead became a bit lighter. As the plan was being implemented, others in the organization participated in crafting the details of the solution. This served to expand the ownership of the problem-and the solution.

Several lessons can be drawn from this example. Principally, the demonstration of strong character on the part of senior management was critical to the constructive resolution of this problem. With a foundation of integrity, even very difficult scenarios can be accepted and remedied.

A second lesson was illustrated by the creative problem-solving that took place during the search for a solution. As might be expected, the situation brought to light some additional related issues. When all the factors were weighed, the problem looked very different than when it started. The solution ended up serving multiple purposes, and turned out to be a rather elegant resolution of a complex set of issues.

This story is an excellent illustration of how a problem, mistake or dilemma can "become our friend" precisely because it offers us the opportunity to move out of our comfort zone and see things in a new way. The creativity quotient of this company's solution to its problem was impressive. They did things that had never been done before in the long history of the company.

This illustrates a final lesson: boldness is often required. During the bleak years of the First World War, England's Prime Minister David Lloyd George observed: "Don't be afraid to take a big leap if one is indicated. You can't cross a chasm in two jumps."               ••• 

Mary Luttrell is an ISO-Certified Management Consultant whose firm has been named one of the 100 Leading Management Consulting Firms in North America. As a business strategy advisor since 1982, she has helped hundreds of companies simplify complexity, increase success, and turn challenges into opportunities. Her services include strategic planning, marketing, organizational performance, meeting and retreat facilitation, and executive/leadership coaching. Contact her at 707-887-2256 or Visit her website at for information on business management and to sign up for her weekly email leadership tips.

Show Comment