What do you do when you make a mistake in business?

I’ve written before about customer complaints and how best to deal with them – but there are plenty of mistakes to be made in business that are not related to customer complaints – they can affect our relationships with suppliers and employees and even affect the way the entire brand is perceived.

There are very few mistakes that are so big we cannot come back from them, given the right frame of mind and attitude. Mistakes are a fantastic learning opportunity and also an opportunity to show others how you deal with it when things don’t go to plan. One thing I learned early in my childhood was to be able to admit when I had done something wrong. I had a great deal of practice in this area, referred to as a “bull in a china shop” often by my parents. Whilst I still rush into things and would rather be getting on with things I probably take just one moment more to think about what I am doing, breathing consciously in the braver moments when I am pushing outside my own comfort zone. The very big benefit of having endlessly practiced looking for progression is that nowadays I simply see any mistake as a learning opportunity. I also have no problem whatsoever sharing the mistakes I have made, allowing myself to be reminded of the experiences I have had and knowing that the last mistake will never be the last time I have gone wrong. I see doing, actioning, engaging, moving all as progressive. The mistake is a chance to discover something will not work. Doing nothing and going nowhere gives no further insight and no progress whatsoever. This I cannot live with.

Some mistakes we make because we don’t know any better. (I now wonder with experience whether this was easier than these days when I know the pain I have created for myself in the past.) When I started a business 27 years ago without a business plan, it was because I didn’t really know enough about business to understand that a plan would be of help. I fumbled my way through until I got to the point where I ended up taking time out of the business to attend Cranfield Business School, Business Growth Programme and then learnt professionally how to run the company I had set up and grown without a concrete plan.

There are other mistakes which we make because we just did something wrong, or indeed in leadership we need to own a mishap that although we didn’t directly cause it, the problem remains one we have to cope with. I once received a call from the owner of a hotel whose electricity system was no longer working because one of our delivery partners had reversed into the delivery bay and ripped off the cabling! Not directly my fault, but still my responsibility. Sometimes we repeat a mistakes of the past, I try not to but equally I know that when things go wrong it may be alternative and influencing factors such as timing, market demand, numerous things that meant something I tried before did not work and might work the next time.

All mistakes are different of course, but whether they are large or small there are a few things we can do to recover from a mistake made in business and move on with our heads held high.

  • Firstly, we must admit a mistake was made, own it and take responsibility. This can be hard to do; many of us have a tendency towards apportioning blame and even feeling like a bit of a victim. If this is you, I would suggest you give up any hope of success in business, right now. Admitting when you have made a mistake and taking responsibility for it is key not only in business but in life. As the business owner, you are responsible for what goes on in your company; no ifs, no buts. The buck stops with you.
  • Be kind. Admitting you’ve made a mistake and taking responsibility for it doesn’t mean beating yourself up about it. Or beating up a member of your team! Learning to repeat a simple phrase like “everyone makes mistakes” can make a world of difference to yourself and to those around you. Making a mistake is not the end of the world; after all, we are all only human. More important are the times when a team member makes a mistake, then good leaders step up and give support, encouraging a solid mistake making culture where the most important things are the lessons we learn and share with others in the company to grow from each other’s experiences. You cannot afford to loose your temper in these situations in one poor response you can destroy an open and creative progressive culture. People do not drive to work thinking about how they can do wrong today; that is not human nature, unless of course perhaps you have consistently a poor culture in which case you have a great deal of work to do to set a new standard.
  • Be honest about it. Whoever is affected by the mistake, whether it is employees, customers, suppliers or someone else, the best thing is to be honest. This might mean drawing people’s attention to a problem before they’re even aware of it – which can feel daunting and somewhat counterproductive – but people always appreciate it when you own up to a mistake, instead of whistling nervously as you pray nobody notices. Tell the people affected what has happened, and what you’re going to do to fix it. If you don’t know how you can fix it, it’s always worth asking the people it affects how they think you should rectify the situation.
  • Learn from it. Mistakes are brilliant learning opportunities. Whilst there is no benefit to be had in apportioning blame, sitting down with the relevant people and dissecting exactly what went wrong and why can have major benefits. Even if what went wrong was that a particular person forgot something, you can as a team sit and figure out ways of preventing this happening again – perhaps automated reminders. Don’t waste a huge amount of time on this; it doesn’t need to be a forensic analysis. Find out what went wrong, discuss ways to avoid it going wrong again next time and ensure you act to add a process or a system that means the same mistake will not be repeated.
  • Leave it in the past. Once your mistake has been made, no amount of complaining or apologising will unmake it! There is no point in constantly raking over old ground, so once you have established the facts and taken learning points from it, move on. That doesn’t mean that you should pretend it hasn’t happened, rather that it’s not something to be brought out at every team meeting or appraisal. I have worked with someone who was appauling bad at admitting when he hasd made a mistake, forgetting things that his team knew well he had been informed of. The hugely poor example this gave others in the team left little reason for others to admit errors and learn from mistakes. Indeed an attitude like this regularly damages the momentum of the company and the brand as individuals working there will not come forward – hence the owner strangles the potential of the business and literally damages profit through their own actions. This is infuriating to work with and for. Worse still not a great investment, but like good decision making it is imperative leaders can admit they lack perfection. I certainly know this in spades.

We all make mistakes, both in business and in our personal lives. Anyone who tells you they don’t make mistakes is either a liar or delusional. With this in mind, it’s better to approach every mistake as an opportunity to grow and learn, than to label it as an outright disaster. In both business and personal life, if we an approach difficulty with an attitude of “how can I learn from this,” before blaming anyone else look at your own skills, your own behaviour and the then everything can become a positive experience if you make it so.

Written by Vicky Charles

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