How quickly do you confess when you mess up? During lunch today with a leader I highly respect, I realized that speed is an important component to admitting mistakes.

The conversation centered around, “How do you share a mistake in a way that will save face?” My suggestion was to reframe that question into, “How do you share the mistake in a way that is a teachable moment and builds credibility?”

Whether we realize it or not, people usually see our mistakes. It is how we react to our mistakes that builds credibility and character. Most people are more than willing to extend grace, especially if we own up to the mistake quickly. If the correction is made sooner rather than later, speed also reduces the likelihood of additional ramifications because the error wasn’t corrected in time.

You can build credibility by owning up to mistakes. Make your mistake a teachable moment by showing how you analyzed the situation and processed it so that you learned from the experience and don’t repeat it. How you determine the appropriate correction is also an opportunity to engage others. During lunch, the leader and I talked about the possibility of having her constituents break into small teams and make suggestions on how they would remedy the situation. She can use that opportunity to demonstrate empowerment (within boundaries) and to build trust. She can also convey by example that great leaders aren’t afraid to admit mistakes – that takes courage and confidence.

Admitting mistakes quickly is particularly important if you are overly dominant. It is important to take the lead, but being overly aggressive, not seeking win-win situations, or constantly dominating a conversation or meeting is ineffective in the long term. Eventually, people will stop sharing their opinions, you will miss valuable insights and ideas, and they may even resist or sabotage implementation. This can happen both at home or at work.

If you tend to run roughshod over others, start paying more attention to the facial expressions of others and that will give you important clues to when you misstep. For example, you might notice a grimace, furled brow or eyes directed downward. If you find yourself interrupting, immediately apologize and let them continue.
One client recently admitted to outbursts and losing his cool. That’s another situation when a quick apology is essential. It demonstrates that you know that your tone or what you said was wrong. Note – if you find yourself in a continual state of apology, you probably need to work on improving your self-management (emotional intelligence).

I love this quote:

When you make a mistake, there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, and don’t repeat it.                                                                                                                                                                         – Paul Bear Bryant

I would add a fourth to the list: move on. I find too many people spend too much time:

  • Dwelling on the mistake and what others will think about them, or
  • Planning how to respond.

Dwelling on a mistake erodes self-confidence and is unproductive. Because people don’t usually broadcast their mistakes, we assume they don’t make them. Coaches can tell you that is far from accurate. We all make mistakes, unless we are unwilling to try anything hard. Set an alarm, have a pity party until it buzzes, and then move on. To ensure you spend an appropriate amount of time planning and don’t over-correct, ask someone else who is objective to be a sounding board for you.

Your challenge: Be more mindful of people’s reactions to your words this week and react appropriately.

P.S. The day after I wrote this, I was reading 1 Samuel 25. I was taken aback when reading about Abigail’s speed of correcting her husband’s misstep and how her quick reaction saved many lives. Turns out this is Biblical wisdom too!