We all make mistakes. It’s our response that counts.
When I was 21, I went camping in New Braunfels with some high-school friends from Houston. My dad had a sweet pop-up Coleman camper, and he was gracious enough to let us borrow it. When we arrived at the campsite, we attempted to “pop-up” the camper. Like most 21-year-olds, we’d had too many adult beverages. Also like most 21-year-olds, when we couldn’t get the camper to pop-up smoothly, we forced it. Of course, we snapped a steel wire and broke the camper. We rigged it to work over the next few days, closed it up at the end of the weekend, and returned the camper to my dad. Know what I didn’t do? I didn’t tell him I broke his camper, and I didn’t apologize or fix it (I know. Shameful. Ug.). He discovered my mistake the next time he opened the camper. He was upset that I broke it, but he understood how it happened. The worst part was that he was disappointed that I hadn’t told him and I that I had let him down. I still feel badly about it, and 30 years later, it pains me to write it down.
Mistakes happen every single day. Some are errors in judgement or execution. Some are poor preparation or anticipation. And some (most?) are interpersonal – a sharp word, an inpatient response, or even silence when support was needed.
I want everyone to have teams, organizations, and relationships that are strong and long-lasting. To achieve this, you must cultivate the skill of how-to-handle-mistakes.
1. Acknowledge that you messed up
This is the hardest step.
If you made a mistake, you need to admit it. First, admit it to yourself and then to the person (or people) most impacted. Most often, you’ll know that you made a mistake, and you’re secretly hoping that no one noticed. Guess what? They noticed. It’s up to you to come clean and admit it.
We’re not talking about small mistakes. We’re talking about impactful mistakes. While it’s draining to work with people who never admit their mistakes, the flip-side is almost as bad. It’s exhausting to hear continuous apologies for the smallest transgressions, and I’m not recommending that you be that person.
The number one argument I hear against admitting mistakes is that it shows “weakness.” You know what? I agree… if you admit your mistake in a weak fashion.
- DO: Take control and firmly and confidently state what you did wrong.
- DO: Use direct and concise language.
- DO NOT: Grovel and smother your mistake with self-flagellation.
Good example: “Emily, I messed up yesterday when I didn’t send you the report I promised.”
Bad example: “Emily, I respect you so much, and I’m afraid that you’ll see me in a horrible light because I let you down and lost your trust. I know that you desperately needed that report, and I put my needs ahead of yours.”
Direct admission of your mistake is a sign of confidence and strength. Plus, you’re demonstrating to your team how you expect them to handle their errors.
2. Apologize… and Mean it
This part is simple and hard at the same time.
Once you’ve stated your mistake in clear language, apologize in similar clear language and with no qualifiers.
- “I’m truly sorry.”
- “Hey, man. I apologize. ”
- “I was sharp with you yesterday. I shouldn’t have done that.”
While the words are important, your TONE is essential. You must mean it. If you’re not sincere, people will sniff it out. If you are not prepared to apologize at this exact moment, then wait until you are ready. But don’t wait too long. If you’re having trouble feeling it, then imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes. Think about the impact on them and how YOU would feel in that situation. It shouldn’t take too long for you to get into the apologizing mood.
And don’t give some passive-aggressive non-apology:
- “If what I said made you feel bad, then I’m sorry.”
- “I’m sorry I yelled at you in the meeting, but…..”
- “I apologize if you thought I messed up.”
Apologize in clear language with no qualifiers.
Also, I’m not big on asking for forgiveness. It puts the burden on the other person to forgive, and it’s almost coercing them to say what you want them to say. What if they don’t want to forgive or excuse you right now? Forcing them to say “I forgive you” when they don’t mean it makes them feel resentful. And if they are truthful and say, “I do NOT forgive you,” then you are both placed in a very awkward position. How do you move forward? Avoid this by not asking for forgiveness. Apologize and move on.
3. Fix it (if you can)
Now that you’re past the emotionally draining steps, things get a lot easier.
If you can fix your mistake, then commit to fixing it. Immediately.
- “Emily, I’ll stay late tonight and get that report to you before I head home.”
- “Bob, I didn’t support your proposal in the meeting today. I’ll send an email right now stating why I’m on board.”
- “Dad, I’ll hitch up the camper and take it to the Coleman repair shop.”
Some things can’t be fixed. A missed deadline could blow an opportunity. A tactical mistake could ruin a project. Unkind words cannot be un-said. In these cases, you must get your apology pitch-perfect, and really nail the next step – what you will do in the future.
4. State What You Will Do in the Future
This final step demonstrates your commitment to rectifying your mistake.
Tell the person you wronged what you will do in the future to avoid making the same mistake.
- “Emily, in the future, I will get the reports to you on time. If I can’t meet the deadline, I’ll give you three days notice, and we’ll discuss an alternative.”
- “Larry, I’ll be more patient in the future and won’t dismiss your idea without hearing you out.”
- “Honey, I will put TP on the grocery list when I see we’re down to 3 rolls.”
Once you make this promise, do it. If you don’t follow through, you’ll be viewed as unreliable and untrustworthy, and your future apologies will carry less weight.
You should do everything you can to avoid mistakes. Especially interpersonal ones. A good apology does not give you carte blanche to make all the mistakes you want. But even when we are our best selves, we still make mistakes. How we handle them is key to our long-term health and success.
And Dad. I’m sorry I broke your camper. I can’t fix it now, but in the future, I promise to return things to you exactly the way I found them.
In 2018, I published my 11 most important lessons from Microsoft email, and over 25,000 people read it and forwarded it to their friends and colleagues. Many people asked me to write in more depth about the topics in the email, so that’s what I’m doing. I’ve spent the last year writing and will share more of that content at AlexHinrichs.com. If you find this interesting, please forward the articles, subscribe to my email list, and follow me on LinkedIn.