What to Do When You’ve Made a Mistake

By Harvard Business Review
April 8, 2019

Errors, even big ones, don’t have to leave a permanent mark on your career. These three things can help you make amends for any blunder you’ve made.

Finding out you’re wrong can feel like a threat to your identity. You might act out in ways that undermine your identity even more, such as arguing, blaming others, withdrawing or digging in your heels. Before you’re viewed as arrogant, aloof or unaccountable, you should talk with everyone affected by your decision.

These accountability conversations should have three parts:

1. Take responsibility: Say, “I was wrong.” Offer a brief explanation, but do not make excuses. Acknowledge that your error had a negative impact on others, and be willing to listen, without defensiveness, to others’ recounting of that impact. Do not interrupt. Apologize.

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2. Address what you need to do now: Tell others what you are doing to remedy the mistake. Include what you are doing to address the substantive impact (money, time, processes) and the relational impact (feelings, reputation, trust) of having been wrong. Be open to feedback about what you’re doing. Overcommunicate your plans.

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3. Share what you’ll do differently next time: Being wrong is messy. Being wrong without self-reflection is irresponsible. Think about what your contribution was to this situation and identify how others contributed as well. (Don’t use words like “fault” or “blame,” which tend to put people on the defensive.) Then tell those affected by your error what you’ve learned about yourself, and what you’re going to do differently in the future. Ask for help where you need it. And ask others to give you frequent feedback down the road.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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