The Mentorist

Mistakes and Miles Davis

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We all make mistakes. Sometimes big fat ones. So big that they cloud our judgment about what to do next.

The first thought that typically goes through people’s minds after realizing they’ve made a huge mistake at work is whether it can stay ‘under the radar.’ If not, the next typically involves looking for someone (or something) to blame. And, not long after that, catastrophic thinking sets in — usually including vivid images of being fired.

So, what should you do after a ‘major screw-up’ at work?  (By that, I mean a mistake with the potential for derailing an important project or goal that others are counting on you for.)

First, invoke Miles Davis.

I don’t mean you should start streaming ‘So What’ on Spotify (although there’s nothing wrong with that). Rather, remind yourself of Miles’ quote when asked about his on-stage mistakes: ‘When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.’

Then, plan your own ‘next note,’ observing the following guidelines:

  1. Reveal what happened sooner rather than later

    Mistakes of any significance don’t get better with age. In fact, if unrevealed, they can set in motion a string of consequences that compound the trouble the original mistake has created. Tell the people who need to know as soon as you’ve collected your thoughts and planned what you’re going to say.

  2. Accept responsibility – without beating yourself up

    Stay calm. Speak deliberately. ‘Own’ your actions (even though, at this point, you probably wish you could do anything but…) and state that you are responsible for the mistake. Keep your dignity during this: Don’t grovel or put on a display of self-flagellation. That will only make others lose confidence in you.

  3. Explain how the mistake happened

    Describe the circumstances that led to the mistake, as best as you understand them. Stick to the facts — this isn’t the time for sharing your opinions. Be brief: Your only purpose here is to provide some context, not a blow-by-blow account. And, by all means, don’t throw anyone else under the bus. It will only make you look petty.

  4. Don’t get defensive or emotional

    It’s possible the person you’re dealing with is a screamer — or that he shuts down and becomes chillingly unavailable. Your mission is to stay centered and calm. Yes, you made a mistake. Show your maturity by ‘owning’ your actions, but, at the same time, convey that your self-respect is intact. Whatever reaction you meet, stand tall.

  5. Take charge of the solution

    One of the fastest ways to lose others’ respect is to drop a problem you’ve created in their lap and take no responsibility for solving it. Remember Miles’ advice: It’s your ‘next note’ that matters.

    Once you discover your mistake and understand its cause, look forward.  Do not keep hitting your mental ‘instant replay’ button.  It will paralyze you.  Instead, start devising a plan to right the situation.

    ForwardButtonPresent the outline of your plan at the same time you reveal your mistake. (If you need more ‘think time,’ at least present the next steps you intend to take for getting to a plan.) Speak confidently, while remaining open to others’ input. If you need help or additional resources, ask for them.

  6. After the crisis subsides, ask for feedback

    After your mistake has been remedied, schedule a ‘sit-down’ session with your manager (or the senior person responsible for the project). Ask for his feedback — not only on your actions leading up to the mistake, but also on how you handled its aftermath.

    Share with him what you learned from the experience — and what you intend to do differently so the mistake doesn’t happen again. Be open-minded and listen intently to what your manager (or the senior person) has to say. If you approach the session in the spirit of wanting to learn, it might be one of the best lessons of your career.

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

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