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Fess Up when you Mess Up

    Let’s face it – most of us would rather do the moonwalk on hot coals than utter the words, “I messed up.” But why is it that owning up to our blunders can feel like scaling a mountain of discomfort? And more importantly, why is it critical that we muster the courage to do so?

    Now, I could dive into the deep, murky waters of psychology to explain why people tend to avoid confessing their errors, but let’s not go there. Suffice it to say, it usually boils down to matters of ego, the fear of looking incompetent, the sheer embarrassment of it all, or the misguided belief that we can sweep our mistakes under the rug, hoping that no one will be the wiser. But regardless of the reasons why admitting fault can make our skin crawl, there’s a powerful case for embracing those awkward moments of truth. And when you’re the boss, it’s more than essential – it’s downright imperative to fess up when you’ve missed the mark.

    The Manager’s Dilemma

    When you’re a manager, it often feels like all eyes are on you, with employees expecting you to be the walking, talking encyclopedia of wisdom, always ready to dispense answers or make flawless decisions. In your past roles, you might have been the expert in certain domains. But now, as a manager, you find yourself juggling a multitude of responsibilities, many of which lead you into uncharted territory. Sometimes, you might even question your own competence, fearing that admitting to not knowing something or making a wrong call could chip away at your confidence. It’s only natural to wonder: can you truly earn the respect of your team when you’re not an expert and when you inevitably make mistakes?

    Well, here’s a reality check: the next time you feel that intense pressure to be right about everything, grab your phone and snap a selfie. Take a good, hard look. What you’ll see is not a walking encyclopedia but a human being, just like the rest of us – lovely, but undeniably flawed and far from immune to errors.

    You don’t need to be a master of your employees’ jobs to excel as a leader, manager, or coach.  Your primary role is to allow growth, offer guidance, and steer employees toward the wealth of resources and mentors at their disposal. Yes, you will make mistakes, and you will make wrong decisions. Be mindful that when you mess up and try to cover up or justify your errors, your actions cause ripples.

    The truth is, the higher you are on the corporate food chain, the more profound the impact your errors can have. There are horror stories of companies plummeting into financial ruin because their top brass refused to acknowledge the glaring realities. Failing to own up to your mistakes doesn’t just stall progress; it shackles you to the past.

    Learn from Children

    rubber eraser

    On the supply list for the first day of school is a must-have item – erasers. There’s quite the variety to choose from – pink ones, retractable, pencil tops, multi colors, there’s even packs of 100! It’s a clear sign that mistakes are expected when kids are learning. Now, here’s the beautiful part: watching a child vigorously erase a few lines of their work, sending rubber shavings flying all over the place. They happily start over again, soaking in the learning and experience.

    Then we grow up. Suddenly, mistakes take on a different meaning. They can feel like proof that we’ve failed, or that we’re stupid or just plain incompetent. It’s almost as if, at some invisible threshold, we’re stripped of our right to have an eraser.  And this pressure intensifies when you’re a manager, doesn’t it? The expectation to be the all-knowing, infallible leader who always has the right answers can be overwhelming.

    But when you peel back the layers it’s really all about ego. Your employees are well aware that you make mistakes, and they’re smart enough to know your weak spots. When you admit those slip-ups, you demonstrate humbleness and self-awareness. On the flip side, when you attempt to cover up, you lose their respect.

    Set your ego aside and  forget about the  pursuit of perfection. Instead, master the art of learning from your blunders. We may not be clutching erasers as tightly as we used to, but we’ve got those handy delete and undo buttons for a reason.

    Gracefully Learn from Your Errors

    Over the course of your career, you’re bound to make some less-than-stellar decisions. It’s practically a rite of passage on the road to becoming an amazing manager.  For instance, what happens when you hire an employee who doesn’t quite fit the bill? The worst thing you can do is slap on the blinders, put on your defensive armor, and let the situation fester until it spirals into a full-blown disaster. Unchecked mistakes have a tendency to compound, so it is best to own them, learn and move on.

    Allow me to share a memorable moment from a conference I attended. It was one of those rare occasions when the CEO of our company, a figurehead of power and authority, took the stage. He didn’t mince words; he boldly admitted that he and his team had indeed messed up. They’d implemented a procedure that wreaked havoc on customers and staff alike. In front of a room teeming with managers and executives, he uttered those humble words, “We were fooling ourselves that this was working. I apologize. We will make it right.” The room was silenced by the raw courage of his admission, and he instantly earned my respect.

    It takes a strong backbone to own up to your mistakes, no doubt about it. Every great leader needs an abundance of courage. When your errors ripple out to affect others, a genuine apology is the first step. Then, take action to rectify your missteps, and don’t forget to enlist the input of those who were impacted. Here’s the golden rule: people are remarkably forgiving of honest mistakes. It’s when you attempt to conceal them, refuse to admit them, or worse, fail to learn from them, that the forgiveness well runs dry.

    Create a Mistaken Learning Environment

    Now, let’s look at a concept that might sound familiar if you’re a fan of medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy – the M&M, which stands for Morbidity and Mortality. It’s all about dissecting adverse outcomes in patient care to pinpoint medical errors and, most importantly, to extract valuable lessons from those mistakes.

    Granted, most workplace errors don’t carry the life-or-death stakes of a medical setting. Nevertheless, when errors have a detrimental impact on your employees, customers, or the bottom line, it’s a no-brainer to ensure that everyone benefits from the insights and has a say in how things can be improved.

    Consider taking a page from the medical world and holding your own M&M-style meeting to review errors. And here’s a twist to make it fun – try the Rubber Chicken Method.

    The Rubber Chicken Method

    Yes, you read it right – the Rubber Chicken Method. It might sound odd, but I loved it when I saw it in action. Here’s how it works: one of my managers purchased a hideous-looking rubber chicken. During the weekly staff meeting, someone voluntarily stepped forward to fess up to a mistake, openly discussed its impact, and encouraged everyone to chime in with suggestions for improvements. The individual who confessed then proudly took custody of the rubber chicken for the week, displaying it at their workstation like a badge of honor.

    Displaying the rubber chicken meant the employee was brave enough to admit to an error and, with the help of their peers, make it right. Was it awkward at first? Absolutely. Eventually, not only did  the chicken become a status symbol for those who were brave and willing to learn, an unintended side-effect was that it became a stress reliever because that chicken was so hilariously hideous it was impossible not to laugh when you looked at it.

    If the Rubber Chicken Method doesn’t quite fit your style, consider this – grab yourself a generous bag of erasers. Scatter them around your workplace to serve as a tangible reminder that making mistakes is not just okay; it’s an integral part of the learning process.

    No matter which approach you choose, the key is to encourage an environment that not only accepts but embraces the growth that arises from being mistaken.


    Let’s wrap it up with some hard-hitting truths. When you choose to sweep your mistakes under the rug, here’s what you risk:

    • Losing Trust: Trust is built on the foundation of honesty, openness, and vulnerability. Concealing your errors erodes this trust faster than you can say “cover-up.”
    • Losing Respect: Ego might strut in with all its bluster, but it’s not winning any popularity contests. Nobody respects the “know-it-alls.” Instead, people hold those who acknowledge their blunders and strive to learn and grow in high regard.
    • Stifling Collaboration: Genuine collaboration thrives in an environment where honesty reigns supreme. It’s about creating a space where employees can trust each other and feel safe to share and learn from their errors.
    • Lacking Integrity: Remember, you’re more than a manager – you’re a role model. Your integrity hinges on your ability to admit your mistakes and show courage in the face of them.
    • Slowing Productivity: Errors have a knack for snowballing when left unchecked. Covering them up only wastes precious time that could be better spent learning from those missteps and forging ahead.
    • Limiting Growth: Those innocent erasers from your school days? They weren’t just for show. Embrace your errors; they’re the catalysts for growth and development, no matter how high you climb.
    • Increasing Stress: The relentless pursuit of perfection is a heavy burden to bear. Stressing over errors or trying to conceal them can eat away at your well-being. If you value your health and sanity, it’s high time to own up, learn, and keep moving forward.

    So, there you have it – a compelling case for why fessing up when you mess up isn’t just a good idea; it’s a cornerstone of effective leadership and personal growth. Now, go forth with the wisdom of a child with an eraser in hand, ready to embrace the learning that comes with each and every mistake.

    “We all make mistakes, but it is how we deal with those errors in judgment and take steps to rectify the situation that show our true character.”

    Rita Schiano

    Ponder Points

    Am I comfortable acknowledging my mistakes and errors openly, or do I tend to hide them from my team or peers?

    How does my approach to handling mistakes impact my team’s trust, respect, and overall collaboration?

    Am I open to showing vulnerability by learning from my errors?

    What steps can I take to foster a Mistaken Learning Environment?

    Do you have creative ways to learn from errors at your workplace? Comments or questions?

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