Paniced Business ManWe all make mistakes.

Last night, I was making vegetable broth.  After straining out the vegetables, I decided that I would concentrate the broth, so I put the broth back on the stove and turned up the burner.  Then with the arrive of a visiting friend and a good book, I forgot the broth until the fire alarm went off.  My wife will be getting a new soup pot today.

What do you do when you realize you’ve made a mistake?

For most mistakes, we quickly move to something else and ignore that the mistake occurred.  This works for small mistakes without serious consequences.  It allows us to move on to more productive activities without a lot of wasted effort.

But public mistakes – those with serious consequences or visible to many people – the responses are rarely productive.  First, there’s the need for mea culpas – the APOLOGY.  But the apology is rarely enough.  We must make restitution, offering an atonement – usually our head.  The recent false alarm in Hawaii is a perfect example.  The calls for the person responsible to be fired were many.  But, as Steve Colbert pointed out, that person will NEVER make that mistake again.

Secondly, we try to deflect responsibility for the mistake.  We try to lay the blame on someone else, the situation, the system, lack of resources, time pressure, etc.  Depending on the social standing of the parties involved, this will work sometimes, especially if the perpetrator is in a strong superior position or protected by others.

Thirdly, we try to cover up the mistake.  Unfortunately, the results are still there and the more we try to hide them, the easier it is to find the mistake.  In fact, the cover up will be a greater mistake than the original mistake.  Just consider Richard Nixon and Watergate – it was the cover up that doomed his presidency.

These responses don’t use the mistake for increasing capability or productivity.  Therefore, they are negative in character.  The underlying root cause of the mistake is never addressed.  Frankly, the mistake will happen again.  The sexual harassment and assault being addressed by the #MeToo campaign are examples of these responses being applied.  Ultimately, the axe falls.

Of course, there’s a fourth response.  As the old saying goes, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.  That means:

  • Acknowledge the mistake;
  • Figure out why it occurred;
  • Put in place mechanisms to eliminate the root cause; and
  • Verify that the mechanisms are working.

This response means that you must expose yourself as someone who is less than perfect, something few are willing to do.  But this response is the only one that leads to real growth in one’s ability to recognize and correct defects and help organizations to respond appropriately to future problems.

Of course, this is not the usual response.  We learn at an early age that we must avoid punishment which is the expected result of mistakes.  But we don’t punish a toddler if they fall down when they are trying to walk.  We expect them to fall down and, so we encourage them to get back up and try again.  But this is not what we do with teens or adults.  Errors are not tolerated.  So, we encourage deceit in the workplace and in our relationships.  And that results in little trust.

We do it to ourselves.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.