Everyone makes mistakes, even the best business leaders—but what separates the bad from the good in terms of leadership is how one deals with these mistakes. Though we know failure plays a role in the process of learning, this knowledge does not make it any easier to handle a misstep effectively and with dignity. Admitting a mistake often involves some degree of embarrassment, but we should not let that feeling trick us into thinking that it also reveals some sort of weakness. On the contrary, owning up to mistakes and setting them right shows a lot of strength and sets a great example for employees. How leaders handle mistakes says a lot about their character, their willingness to show vulnerability, and their ability to build strong relationships.
The following are some of the best tips on handling mistakes gracefully:
Acknowledge the mistake before anyone else does
While admitting a mistake may embarrass you, it can feel even worse when you’re confronted about it. You may feel like making your missteps disappear, but it won’t work and it sets a bad precedent for employees. Leaders should always be the first to admit a mistake, which means owning up to it as soon as you are aware of it. Rather than making you look weak, this will demonstrate your integrity and help build rapport.
When business leaders avoid hiding from the truth, employee confidence grows. Admitting a blunder may sting a bit at first, but it won’t for long, especially once you realize that it has not actually damaged your reputation as a leader.
Own all problems, even if not directly responsible.
Leaders maintain ultimate responsibility for the actions of the team, and as such, they need to show that they support the people who work under them. A great leader avoids pointing fingers—especially at employees. Placing blame elsewhere will not fool anyone, and it will make you appear untrustworthy.
Leaders who step up even when they do not have to demonstrate their strength and authority, which ultimately inspires a lot more confidence. At the same time, you don’t need to berate yourself in public when you take responsibility. Explaining the problem and how to move forward is enough. Being proactive about a solution makes a better impression than self-belittlement.
Avoid minimizing the seriousness of the situation.
Sometimes, leaders try to make light of a situation to lessen the amount of guilt that they feel and save face in front of their employees. The problem with this strategy is that not owning up to the full extent of the damage hinders your ability to find a solution to the problem, and when the truth does come out, it can injure your credibility and frustrate employees. Immediate honesty and transparency are critically important in these situations. Moreover, preparing others for a worst-case scenario is always wiser than minimizing an issue.
Never make excuses to explain away the mistake.
When leaders offer excuses for their behavior, they are not focusing on the right pieces of information. Excuses come across as defensive and can create distance between leaders and their employees. In the end, employees are not very different from leaders. Just as a leader would rather hear ideas about how to move forward than excuses, employees are more interested in potential solutions than justification.
As the leader, you should provide a non-defensive explanation of what went wrong, and why, so that everyone has the information they need to figure out how to proceed. Offering excuses instead of this information is just a waste of everyone’s time.
Invite feedback and suggestions from other employees.
Leaders who have made a serious mistake will likely not be able to fix it by themselves, and moreover, they probably should not even try. Listening to feedback and welcoming solutions can help you to establish better processes to avoid similar issues in the future. (And sometimes, it’s helpful just to hear how the issue has affected different people at the company.)
Feedback can come from a range of different people, including employees, team members, and other leaders at the company. If your mistake affected a client, you should reach out to them as a way of beginning to repair the damage done. Reaching out shows that you are willing to do anything possible to come to a fast resolution.