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How to Effectively Recover from a Significant Mistake

Posted by Louellen Essex on February 19, 2015 in Communication, Managing Difficult Situations

No leader does everything correctly all of the time. Mistakes most typically involve misinterpretation of information leading to poor decision-making, not including the right people at the right time in important initiatives, intervening too late in a situation, demonstrating poor interpersonal behaviors that create defensiveness and a climate of disrespect, or not using resources wisely. A poorly executed recovery can make things worse, destroying the leader’s credibility and perceived trustworthiness. Consider the following “AAA” guidelines if you find yourself in the challenging aftermath of making a critical mistake.

Make sure you fully understand what went wrong. Consider assembling a SWAT team of trusted colleagues and consultants to help you with the analysis. Ask tough questions: What data did I overlook? Was I given the wrong information and by whom and why? What was faulty in my method or strategy? What went awry with my communication approach? Did I bump up against unrecognized political dynamics in the organization? A careful investigation and analysis requires being open to feedback and self-scrutiny. By focusing on what you can learn from the situation, you’ll be better able to create an effective solution and reduce the probability of making the same mistake again.

If your mistake adversely affected or offended others, an apology is in order. Avoid making another mistake with a half-hearted, excuse-making approach. A good apology has three parts. First, a clear statement of what you did that created the problem. Let others know you understand and acknowledge what went wrong. Second, a statement of regret, i.e. I’m sorry for what happened and know it caused a great deal of trouble for all of you. Third, outline your plan of action to correct the mistake and prevent it from happening again. Describe enough detail to demonstrate you have been thoughtful in determining the next steps.

Your follow-through on corrective action is critical. If your recovery ends with an apology and false promises, you may not be able to successfully rebound. Act as quickly as you can to put new behavior, communication, and or decision-making processes in place that demonstrate you have made a careful analysis and know what to do to fix the problem. Failure, followed by an effective recovery process, can actually strengthen a leader’s credibility through what is known as the strategic-pratfall effect. Psychologists have found that people identify more with leaders who openly admit to their mistakes and make effective change.

Of course, not all mistakes are recoverable. If a leader’s integrity is compromised or a pattern of foolish mistakes suggests gross incompetence, recovery is not in the picture. But, most mistakes do not fall into these categories, offering an opportunity to a leader to learn, grow, and even be trusted a little more through demonstration of a competent mistake recovery approach.

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In these times of rapid change, leaders can never stop learning.”

Dr. Louellen Essex