In my first job, I wanted everything to go perfectly. I was intent on proving myself. When I discovered that I had made a rookie mistake in the annual report of my non-profit employer, I was devastated. I put my head down on my desk and I cried.
A dark moment. But one with a silver lining that has stayed with me.
The Executive Director of this worthy organization was a great leader and mentor. He made me see quickly that weeping on my desk was not useful and that what was needed was creative action to minimize the negative impact of my mistake. With his encouragement, I went to the printer, explained what had happened and they suggested they could reprint the page on which the error had occurred and reassemble the reports. Lesson learned: don’t dwell on it, fix it, and learn from the experience.
There’s more to it though. I’ve learned over the years that how you acknowledge a mistake, how you describe the actions you have taken, and how you open up communication about it matters almost more than the mistake itself. I call it “The Art of the Apology”.
When a mistake occurs, whether your instinct is self-blame or whether it is denial or blaming others, try this ritual to set things right and maybe even earn an increase in respect. Go to your manager or whoever is most concerned, and deliver your apology:
- This mistake has occurred.
- I am truly sorry for it.
- I understand the implications.
- I accept responsibility for it (in whole or in part, as appropriate).
- This is how it happened.
- This is what has been done, or is being done, to set it right.
- This is what will be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
- Then listen. If you feel defensive, just breathe through it and stay open.
- Repeat that you are sincerely sorry.
- Ask if there is anything else that you could do now to set it right.
Handle it with grace and courage, learn from it, and move on. This is an art that will serve you, and any organization that employs you, very well indeed.