To Err is Human

Written by Joanne Deck. Posted in Academic & Career Success, Blog

We’ve all heard it said: to err is human; to forgive is divine, but just how often is this platitude practiced in the workplace?  What if you’re new in your job?  Just how does one recover from a mistake, especially when it involves others?

MeetingI faced this very question myself years ago when I made an error with less than a month on the job.  I was coordinating a training seminar for the managers in our manufacturing plant, and I communicated the wrong date.  I had several people enrolled in a session that I thought was to be held in three weeks, and instead I learned that it was being presented in two days. It’s hard enough for leaders to clear their calendars for a whole day with three weeks’ notice, but with just 48 hours?

Many thoughts went through my mind when I realized I had misread the announcement and miscommunicated the date.  I knew I had to own my mistake and take immediate action, but what impression would I be making?  No one knew me there; I had no history.  Would my supervisor take some grief for my misstep?  How many managers would miss out on the seminar altogether because they couldn’t make it with just two days’ notice?  And what effect would this error have on my relationship with my new boss?

Thankfully, I had excellent training from my parents, who taught me honesty is the best policy.  I called each leader affected, took responsibility for the situation, apologized, and presented the options.  A couple folks actually managed to attend and the others were good-natured about it.  My supervisor appreciated my prompt action and forthright approach.  Of course, I was also very fortunate that my boss was highly regarded and the company culture was forgiving.

I advise my clients to take these steps when they discover they’ve made a mistake:

  1. Investigate what you can do to rectify the situation. If there is more than one possible option, consider the pros and cons of each course of action.
  2. If you have the authority to decide on a solution and can address the situation on your own, take steps to resolve the problem as quickly as you can. Take responsibility and offer an appropriate and sincere apology. 
  3. Do not over-apologize, even if you’re being sincere.  It will call more attention to the situation and damage your credibility further.  We’ve all made mistakes.  It’s part of the human condition.
  4. Tell your supervisor what happened and what you did to fix it.  If the corrective action is beyond your authority level or requires the involvement of other people, discuss with your boss the options you’ve come up with and what you recommend be done. Again, own your actions and express regret, but don’t overdo it.  You will be seen more positively by displaying grace under fire with clear-headed thinking and a practical action plan.
  5. Identify what steps you can take going forward to avoid similar mistakes.  Most successful people will tell you they learn more from their mistakes than their victories.
  6. Follow up on the actions you took to resolve the problem.  It’s natural to want to put it behind you as quickly as possible, and you’ll be better able to do that if all the affected parties and issues are taken care of. 
  7. Update your supervisor on the final outcome and what actions you’ll take to prevent a reoccurrence.
  8. Let go of the mistake and move on.  Ideally your manager and others in the organization will do so, as well.  Don’t remind them of the event by dwelling on it.

While we all dread making a mistake, a circumstance like this can be constructive.  If you handle it well, you can actually create a positive impression as being a person with character and integrity.  Your boss will learn that you’re trustworthy, and you’ll learn whether the organization is one you can see yourself staying with in the long run.

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Joanne Deck

Joanne M. Deck, MBA, SPHR is a certified academic and career coach, educator, public speaker, and author with expertise in higher education, careers, and healthy dating relationships. She has over 20 years of corporate experience as an instructor and tutor, leadership coach, human resources director, wellness and management consultant, and customer service manager and is active with Toastmasters, having achieved the levels of ACS and ALB. Joanne is also the author of Sane Sex for Singles, a three-time winning dating guide for the new millennium. Joanne was born in Rochester, NY and graduated from the University at Albany, NY with a degree in math and an MBA in human resources. She is the mother of young adult twin daughters and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband, Roger. Joanne is currently working on her next book, Learning to Receive with Grace and Ease, aimed at helping people become more comfortable and skillful receivers. Her observation is that most people have the giving side of the equation down, but struggle with receiving.

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