The Nature of Mistakes: Recovering From Errors in the Workplace

“Science… is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which [are] useful to make, because they lead, little by little, to the truth.” ~Jules Verne, French novelist, poet, and playwrite.

Error Stamp Shows Mistake Fault Or Defect

The Best Mistakes

Not all mistakes are intrinsically bad, and are actually essential for learning. It stands to reason that we ought to make good mistakes where the cost is minimal, but the learning is great.  A good supervisor may wring his or her hands with nervousness, but they have to allow their employees a certain margin of latitude to make mistakes.

When it comes right down to it, what we call experience is just an accumulation of mistakes from which we were smart enough to learn.  A little courage on the part of a boss will produce better employees, but in the beginning, this freedom must be delineated by what won’t affect customers, until they get their sea-legs, so to speak.

The Worst Mistakes

The philosopher and author, George Santayana, was noted for stating, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, and this forms the body of the worst mistakes.  If you don’t learn from your errors; i.e., refusing to pull the plug on a failed project because of time and money already invested, you are not only making a foolish decision, but are preventing yourself from moving forward toward something more productive.

Many have agreed that the very definition of madness is repeating the exact same action over and over again in hopes of a different result.  We have to recognize when to cut our losses, but more importantly, we have to take time to reflect on our errors, and view where we went wrong.  It’s up to us to recognize those hazards, even when they appear in a different form, and avoid them.

The Path to Recovery

  1. Admit, Apologize, and Take Responsibility. Be sincere but brief, without self-deprecation.  It goes like this:  “I have to apologize because I’ve made a mistake with {explain}.  I’m working on fixing it right now, and I’ll keep you informed on my progress.”  If they’re likely busy with their own agenda, they are probably just glad to know it is being dealt with, so there is no need to drag it out.
  2. Identify, Interpret, and Safeguard. Ascertain exactly where you went astray. Then determine the causes; then create policies and safeguards to make sure that it does not occur again.
  3. Inform, Describe, and Learn. Tell others how you are prepared to correct the error, and describe the preventative measures to make sure that this error does not occur again. Undertake to fully understand the problem and recognize a recurrence (even in a different guise) in the future.

While recognition for our successes is certainly a morale booster, we don’t necessarily don’t learn important lessons while earning a trophy or a reward for an accomplishment.  The simple truth of the matter is that the best tools we have for learning are mistakes and failures.   Continued success seldom teaches us anything; we learn from brand new successes because we were willing to take a risk.

Tired businesswoman having a headache while sitting at the office desk

The Takeaway

As long as you’re not a pilot, a driver, a surgeon, or something similar, your mistakes probably aren’t going to take any lives.  While no one actively seeks to make mistakes, when they do occur we should embrace them.  This is an opportunity to learn something.

In the final analysis, if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.  Stretching yourself, trying to do something a little beyond your current skills, is a great way to grow. Conversely, making mistakes because of sloppiness, distraction, or inattention to detail means you need to make some personal changes.  They could be as simple as turning off your electronic devices, and closing your office door when you’re busy.

We can feel bad about mistakes that affect others in a significantly negative way.  When that happens, own that mistake.  Talk to the affected party in person and express sincere regret; tell them how you’re going to make it better.

Don’t cower and hide because facing a problem directly shows courage and strength of character.  Those two aspects will let others know that you are a force to be reckoned with; that you are someone deserving of respect.


Fred Coon, CEO

Stewart, Cooper & Coon, has helped thousands of decision makers and senior executives move up in their careers and achieve significantly improved financial packages within short time frames. Contact Fred Coon – 866-883-4200, Ext. 200