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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd


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Why leaders should always own up to their mistakes

Owning up to our erroneous ways is not easy, but if leaders cannot muster the courage to share failures how can we expect others in the organisation to?
failure, leadership

We have all felt that pit in our stomach upon realising we have made a mistake at work. Yet errors are a natural part of learning, can provide opportunities for growth and problem solving, and serve as a catalyst for future success.

By contrast, when we don’t own our mistakes, it can lead to a loss of self-confidence, increased anxiety and unease, as well as create a lack of trust in our abilities in others. How we handle and address our mistakes is often more crucial than the mistakes themselves, not least because hiding a mistake invariably takes more energy and effort than owning up and moving on.

It is even more important that leaders of an organisation regularly and comfortably acknowledge their errors in judgement and action. After all,  if leaders cannot muster the courage to share failures how can we expect others in the organisation to?

Accountability shows honesty, professionalism and integrity, which are three important leadership qualities.

Take ownership of your errors

Acknowledging your mistakes is necessary for various reasons, the most significant often being the prevention of escalation. Taking ownership of your errors helps minimise the potential for more serious negative consequences and facilitates faster problem resolution.

When others see there is a safe space to own up to errors and miscalculations and learn from them, it helps to strengthen the foundations of a positive work culture. Accountability shows honesty, professionalism and integrity, which are three important leadership qualities. Being transparent and communicating clearly when things are not going according to plan later opens up discussions about how to proceed and improve next time, and the sharing of ideas and respectful opinions.

Sowing the seeds of an open workplace culture

When you own your mistakes, others may follow your lead and it is entirely possible that any mistakes they make in the future could have greater consequences than yours, so having an open work culture keeps the business safer.

I was working in a factory as a young man on a milling machine and one day I mistakenly misaligned the blades as I lowered the assembly into place. The result was a frightening ‘ping’ sound as one snapped off. Luckily no one was hurt and I felt terrible about my error, but my thoughts immediately went to protecting myself: “How can I get away with this, how can I stay out of trouble?” I owned up, and the Production Manager helped me learn what to do next time to avoid repeating the mistake. I felt shame and feared retribution, and received support and learning.

Mistakes, openly acknowledged, can lead to innovation

We’ve found that a team that learns from mistakes is more innovative. Team members are more willing to take risks and explore new ideas if they know that the organisation values learning from failures. Contributing to the problem-solving process demonstrates your commitment to the team.

When you have made a mistake, you have a unique opportunity for self-reflection and learning, which is crucial to personal and professional development and admirable qualities of a leader. It keeps focus on what is right and necessary rather than, by contrast, lying and putting energy into maintaining an untruth which has an exhausting multiplier effect.

What steps should we take if we make a mistake in the workplace? 

Here are four steps your should take when realising the error of your ways. 

1. Communicate what has happened with someone you trust

Be proactive rather than attempt to conceal. Lead by example and be open and honest. Covering up will result in losing momentum and deplete energy, motivation, goodwill and trust. 

2. Acknowledge what has happened but try to keep it in context

Allow yourself the necessary time to process and experience your emotions but try not to ruminate (easier said than done!), keep things in perspective and then place it in the ‘learnt from that’ pile and move on.

3. Address any ensuing issues and give progress reports to build trust

Plan for the future to avoid a reoccurrence of the problems. Perhaps a practice run is needed next time or more feedback. Share ideas and tap into your colleague’s wealth of knowledge, talent, and experience. Understand rebuilding trust and resetting perceptions may take time, so be patient.

4. Turn on your growth mindset to stop you from allowing setbacks to stunt your progress

Remember it's better to evolve than revolve. Resilience, determination and flexibility in thinking enable us to adapt, problem-solve and grow.

Interested in this topic? Read Why risk taking and failure are essential to progress

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