Reacting To Your Own Mistakes

When you mess up, fess up.

As children, many of us were told by our parents and the other adults in our lives that we would make mistakes; and when we did so the thing to do was admit them and learn from them. Unfortunately not everybody heard this advice and a few more heard it but ignored it.

It’s important that you get this message now whether from reading this first-hand or perhaps someone who cares about you will have brought this to your attention and told you to read. Either way, good thing you’re reading now.

The first thing you need to understand is that messing up and making a mistake is something we all do; even the best of us. Yes, it’s true. Now some mistakes are bigger than others, and the fallout from those mistakes varies a great deal but making errors isn’t limited to just some of us. As you mature, you learn that it’s not the mistakes made that those around us typically judge us by but how we both learn from them and take responsibility for them.

Remember when you were a little kid and you’d do something that would annoy your parents like colouring the walls with crayons. Whether you knew it was wrong or not you could tell quickly it was a bad thing when you’d hear your mom cry out, “Ah! Who’s been doodling on the walls?” Instantly your defence mechanisms would kick in and in an effort of self-preservation you’d say, “Not me!” Despite the fact you were an only child and the crayons themselves surrounded you on the floor, you’d somehow look to shift the blame to someone; anyone else. You could be forgiven for colouring where you shouldn’t but not for lying about it and attempting to ditch the responsibility.

As a growing teenager, you probably made all kinds of screw ups in what many refer to as the awkward years. Whether it was doing things you shouldn’t, or not doing things you should have, those years were full of blundering along and not always fessing up when things went wrong. The unexplained scratch on the family car, the broken window by the driveway where the hockey net sat, the muddy footprints in the hallway; all done and denied as being done by you.

Now the funny thing about mistakes is that the more we deny making them, the less it becomes about the error in the first place and the more it becomes about our inability to accept responsibility and be accountable. Being accountable is one trait that employers value highly. If you make mistakes – and you will – take responsibility for reporting it and learning from it so it’s less likely to happen again. If you fail to take responsibility for your errors, you’re a bigger problem for the employer to deal with as now they have to not only show you where you went wrong, but now they wonder about your honesty; and your character and reputation suffer as a result. In other words, you’re compounding the issue.

Here’s the thing about confessing to mistakes. If you say right up front, “That’s my fault and I’m sorry about that”, it makes it hard for others to make a big deal out of your error; you’ve taken the wind right out of their sails. They may have actually wanted you to argue about things, defend yourself until they eventual proved you wrong and won some argument, and here you’ve taken all that joy away from them by immediately apologizing. Do it really well, and anyone who lashes out at you over the initially error may later apologize to you for their reaction to your mistake!

Of course the bigger the error the harder it is for some to take responsibility. However, the bigger the mistake, the more a person’s character is revealed in how they react to their mistake and accept or decline the accountability.

Some mistakes we make are innocent ones because we truly didn’t know better. We made a decision based on the information we had at the time and it turned out to be the wrong one if we’d known about company practices, policies and procedures. Oh well, we know now. Other mistakes however are where we should have known better; in fact we did. Our moral compass screamed that what we were about to do was wrong but we did it anyway, hoping not to get caught in the process. We’re seldom that smart however, so sooner or later the mistake is noted, the search is on for the culprit and we only make things worse by initially denying any knowledge of the situation. Later, we’ll end up apologizing for both the mistake and the denial.

It may seem the harder thing to do, but the best advice you can get is to take ownership for your actions. WHEN not IF you mess up, stand up and fess up. Often you’ll gain a lot of respect from your co-workers and management for what happens after the mistake.

So whether it’s, “Who took my pen?”, “Who gave out my home number to a customer?” or “Who left the shop door unlocked last night?” be accountable for your actions. It may not always work out in your favour I admit. A boss might say they admire your honesty but they’ll have to discipline you or even let you go if it’s serious. But you’ll still have your integrity intact.

The Interview Question About Past Mistakes

Ever been sitting in an interview and asked to share a situation from you past where you made a mistake, then had to go about fixing it? Why do they ask you such a question you may wonder? Well wonder no more. This question is designed to highlight three key things: 1) will you be honest and actually share an error you made and 2) do you take ownership for your error’s and 3) when you do make errors, how do you go about rectifying the initial mistake.

Now one thing that’s critical in responding to a question of making mistakes is to admit that you make them. The absolute worst thing you do is look thoughtful and then say you can’t honestly think of a time when you’ve ever made an error. To make such a statement tells an interviewer you don’t know yourself very well, nor are you being honest and therefore can’t be trusted.

Making mistakes is how many of us learn. Ever heard of the statement, “Well, I won’t make THAT mistake again!” Of course you have. People make this statement or something similar to it when they have made an error and don’t want the unpleasant experience to be repeated. They take steps to ensure that if and when they find themselves in a similar situation, they will recall the poor experience and choose an alternative action that they hope will result in a more positive outcome.

Likewise you may have experience yourself or heard others speak of trial and error. This is a process where you try an approach to something and expect to fail. When you do, you learn a small piece of information that makes the next trial a step in the right direction because you’ve eliminated one possibility. With your next or upcoming several attempts, you learn more until eventually you figure something out having learned many small bits of information. In the end, you create something having learned from your trial attempts.

The key to answering the question in an interview is to demonstrate your capacity to learn from errors and mistakes. In learning something, you reduce the future incidence of mistakes, thereby improving on arriving at workable solutions faster. When you arrive at solutions faster, you save yourself and the organization you may work for both time and money. You may also save precious resources, goods and products; and you may save relationships with their clients, customers or suppliers.

Now usually it follows that the bigger the mistake you’ve made, the bigger the learning opportunity. However, having said this, it’s extremely unwise to share some catastrophic calamity that you were the cause of – no matter what you learned from the process. If you made the mistake of smoking in a non-smoking area and your past employer’s place of business was leveled to the ground in a fiery explosion, that mistake might be too big to overcome in an interview. Especially if you worked in some well-respected animal rescue shelter and there was a loss of both animal and human life. Yes, let’s agree not to share this mistake!

So the key is to share a mistake that is significant enough that you need to address it, but not so huge that you will be forever linked to a disaster which cost your employer a huge setback in operations. An employer doesn’t want your error to cost them money or their reputation. Both these commodities are precious to them and any threat to them (such as hiring you) is something they’ll want to avoid.

Sharing an error you’ve made should be something you did (ownership) which is quickly solved and saves both money and a company’s reputation. These are the two commodities I’ve just said are most treasured by employers, so if you demonstrate an ability to turn a negative into a positive and in so doing preserve one or both, you’re on the right track to a good answer.

Now for a moment, look at a situation where there are two or more young children playing inside the house and something gets broken. Upon entering the room at the sound of the crash and the impending silence from the children, the adult asks, “What happened?” or “Who broke that?” Those questions are designed to get at who is responsible. If one child points at another and says, “She did it!” and the child denies all responsibility, the adult now has a second problem in addition to the broken article; who did do it?

You and I both know the longer someone avoids ownership of the mistake, the more likely the punishment is to be harsher. Owning up right away means the child is only going to be dealing with the broken item and the fact they made the mistake of playing inside if they shouldn’t have been. Denying responsibility adds another layer; now they may be punished for denying ownership of their actions too.

When asked at the interview, show ownership for your past errors. Clearly identify in a specific example what went wrong, then move to what you did to resolve the problem based on what you learned from the situation. Finish your answer with a positive, such as being complimented by your past supervisor for taking responsibility and turning a negative into a positive. Draw the connection between taking what you learned elsewhere to not repeating that mistake in the job you are competing for now.

Tell Us About A Mistake You Made

Can you identify a time when you made an error on the job? If you managed to right things in the end and turn the negative into a positive, how did you manage to do that?

I personally have never met anyone who didn’t at some point make a mistake. Be it a lapse of good judgement, misunderstanding a policy, sharing information that turned out to be wrong, missing a deadline; even mixing up the day you have off and staying home on a day you should have been at work; mistakes happen. So given that we all goof up periodically, let’s be honest with ourselves and get past the embarrassment or shame of having made a mistake.

Okay, so it’s not a question of, ‘have you ever made an error?’, it’s a question of what we’ve done to rectify the situation once we realize it. There are two kinds of mistakes; the major ones and the minor ones. The type that fall into the minor category are the type that might be embarrassing but can be quickly remedied and don’t carry long term consequences. I distinctly remember stepping out of my car at work some 90 kilometres from home and suddenly noting as I looked down that I was wearing two different black shoes; a slip on and a lace up! A mistake for sure, but I laughed it off and it was I who pointed it out to my colleagues, making myself the source of amusement and laughter that day. A minor mistake, no major repercussions, easily resolved.

And then of course we’ve got mistakes of the more serious variety. When we make these kinds of mistakes on the job, we are less likely to want to share them with our colleagues. We fret at work, waiting for the summons from the boss, stew over an allegation a customer or client has threatened to raise about our actions, or we feel horrible when we erroneously turn away someone in need only later to find that we could have given them the help they asked for.

On the upside, with every mistake we make, big or small, we have a learning opportunity present itself. If mistakes are inevitably going to occur, it’s not so much then that we make errors, but rather how we learn, (or fail to learn) from them. The bigger the mistake we’ve made, the more significant the learning opportunity. One of the best things you can do when you mess up is acknowledge it quickly, taking full responsibility for it, and take the necessary steps to ensure it does not occur a second time. It’s very hard to come down hard on someone who is contrite, apologetic and who otherwise has a history of positive performance.

On the other hand, attempting to cover up your mistake, blaming others rather than taking responsibility, not showing any signs of remorse, or blatantly overstepping your bounds with little regard to established procedures and policies will surely land you in more trouble in addition to the original error.

Let’s fast-forward then to a job interview. One question that comes up from time-to-time is to share with the interviewer(s), a time when you have goofed up and what you did to resolve it. Some people are understandably nervous about how to answer this question; feeling if they choose the wrong example they will essentially rule themselves out of consideration for the job if too honest. In answering this question, you may feel – and show through your body language – anxiety, embarrassment, even exposure.

The best way to handle this answer is to start with a genuine experience. Don’t invent something on the spot or claim you’ve never made an error of any kind. Neither of these is likely to end well. The key is as I’ve mentioned, to do more than just share the mistake; it’s critical to demonstrate the action you took to both address the consequences of your mistake and learn the lesson. The more authentic you are the better. Of course if your answer centers on some massive error that has disastrous consequences which can never be fully resolved – that may not be the best situation to share.

This question is really designed to both reveal something of your character (how honest you are) and how you react when you do realize you’ve made an error. Remember that even though you are sharing a story about an incident in the past, you are really demonstrating how you are likely to react in the future. This is an example of a behavioural event question; the point being how you’ve acted in the past is the best indicator of how you’ll act moving forward.

Lest you think you’ll use an example from your personal life or a relatively minor mistake like my experience that day with two different shoes, a well-trained interviewer may ask the question a second time, probing for a work-related incident of greater consequence.

It’s only natural we don’t want to voluntarily share anything which could potentially paint ourselves in a bad way and remove us from being considered for a job we want. The key then is to state the error clearly and quickly, but spend the bulk of our answer demonstrating how we responded, concluding with a positive outcome. As you sum up your story, ensure you share what you learned.


This ‘Resume Expert’ Goofs Up

Every now and then I am gently reminded that I’m human and making an error is not out of the question. This is a good thing I tell myself if no one is adversely affected and I can learn from the experience. And so today my colleagues and much-appreciated readers, I would like to share my latest mix up.

It was just before Christmas and I was sitting down with a woman who had come into a resume writing class for help. On that day, it turned out that we only had four clients and we had four staff available so we opted to go one-on-one instead of a formal group presentation. So there I was sitting with this woman as I say, spouting off my accumulated expertise and feeling pretty grand about how much she herself was getting out of it.

Now she didn’t have much working experience being in her early twenties, and it was a challenge to put together a strong resume with the limited jobs she has held to date. One of those jobs was stocking and facing products in a store overnight so the shelves were ready for customers the following day. I get this job, I understand what’s involved, and I spun the two bullets I’d written for her into useful transferable skills. “Well done”, I may have said to myself that day – although I honestly can’t say I said it for sure.

So it was with horror and amusement that I saw just yesterday afternoon what I had actually put on that resume when she stood before me and pointed out the error I’d made. Yes folks, there it was in all it’s black and white glory, plain as day and you can laugh out loud if you want. The job title read, “Night Stalker” instead of “Night Stocker.”

Well I couldn’t believe it. We had both joked about this very thing on that day we’d first met. Here I had actually typed it in and both of us had overlooked it in the proofreading. Yep, me the big ‘resume expert’; the guy who takes pride in his work and is constantly advising others to have an, ‘expert’ look over your resume for errors – yep I goofed up. “You haven’t actually handed this out anywhere have you?”, I asked in horror. Thankfully the answer was that she had not. “Whew!”

So no real harm done beyond my smarting ego and we both had a good laugh. It had the potential to cost her a job interview had she sent it out somewhere by now, and for once I was glad somebody hadn’t used it right away. I obviously apologized and corrected it for her and the copy we retain for our own records. Night stalking is a job you don’t actually need a resume for anyhow. I wonder if night stalking goes in the job description of a private eye, pest control technician or burglar?

Here’s why I’m sharing this with you really. First and foremost I think it’s healthy to share our mistakes with each other which keeps us humble. My intent for the immediate future is to improve my final proofreading and also to use this story when helping others so they themselves don’t rely on other people solely to review their work. If your name is on the top of a document that someone else wrote up for you, you yourself have to be accountable and responsible for whatever is on it just as this lady did.

I’m also sharing my error with you in an effort to illustrate that mistakes are going to happen. Yes despite our best efforts, you and I are both going to error from time-to-time and it’s more what we do when the errors come to light than the error’s themselves depending on the scope of what we’ve tripped ourselves up on. I got lucky here as it is just my reputation and pride that got slightly dinged. I can live with this.

Sometimes however, the errors we make can also work to our favour. In this case I feel fortunate that this brought her back into the Centre where I work, and it gave me the opportunity to touch base with her. She still really appreciates the overall resume, and it is far better and stronger than what she had when we first met. How I responded to her by immediately owning the error I’d made, allowed her to just see the humour along with me. Had I somehow blamed her for not proofreading it better herself or blamed the noise around us etc. she might have actually thought less of me yesterday.

I admit this is a small error in the grand scheme of things. If you error and people suffer for it, or a company loses a great deal of money over it, the stakes for you personally can be huge. However it is the measure of a person in how quickly they own up to their errors and face the consequences that is important. Mistakes can cost us our jobs and sometimes damage our reputations, but flaws in our character by lying about things or denying responsibility tend to stick much longer and do more long-term damage.

When you goof up – and you will, I pray that your mistake is as small and easily fixed as mine.

When You Mess Up

Everybody makes mistakes. When you make an error, what’s your first thought? Do you immediately take responsibility for it? Perhaps you try to cover it up before anyone notices. Maybe you wait and see if someone will even notice or perhaps take responsibility for it themself. Worse yet, are you one of those people who intentionally try to blame others for your errors?

Okay so some mistakes are bigger than others and some by consequence have more financial implications. While that’s true, taking responsibility early for mistakes – ESPECIALLY THE BIG ONES – shows you to be a person of integrity. Now I know what you might be thinking; “If I get fired for admitting I goofed up, at least I’ll have my integrity! I should have kept my big mouth shut and lost my integrity but kept my job!”

Owning up to errors is part of the growing experience. A good Supervisor or Manager will only put an employee in a position that they are able to succeed or possibly fail with calculated risks that the company can survive. For example, if you are being asked to head up some promotional campaign for a new product of one of your company’s clients, you can safely assume somebody higher up in the organizational chart thinks you can do the job. After all, the don’t want to lose the client now do they? Not only do they think you can do the job, but if there are regular meetings along the way scheduled to check on your ideas and your progress, input from the client or senior personnel can act as safeguards to ensure the end product is in line with what the client will be happy with.

The more responsibility you are given, the more you probably have earned it, and that’s something to be proud of. Newer junior employees often start out with very limited responsibility because if they make errors, others around them can catch them in time, minimize the impact on the organization and hopefully the person learns from the experience.

And more than anything else, LEARNING FROM YOUR MISTAKES is really a fabulous way to grow as an individual and position yourself to move on and up in an organization. Most of the people at or near the top of an organziation have made considerable mistakes in their rise, but they were able to learn the lessons along the way, and minimized repeating the same error. For this reason, it’s helpful to at some point pause and think about an error you made and consider where in the decision-making or implementing phase something started to go wrong. Maybe you didn’t bring in the right people on a project. Perhaps a miscalculation in a budget, a formula, an estimate etc. is where the error occurred.

One of the worst things anyone can do however, is fail to acknowledge their error when it has a direct impact on clients or customers. Should a customer bring some issue to your attention directly, there is usually but not always, an initial window of opportunity where you can appease and perhaps even please the customer or client. In other words, the client or customer is usually willing to see what your response will be to the problem. Right the wrong and you can often impress. However fail to acknowledge or take responsibility including an apology, and now you run the risk of losing the customer and having your name and that of your company badmouthed.

Now if you have the ability to FORESEE problems before they arise, or potential problems, you might want to inform anyone else who will possibly be affected in order to alert them. This action can be very beneficial in that it gets others more watchful for any small issue BEFORE the issue grows.  Not every Supervisor will appreciate being told directly when you mess up, but the best Supervisors will. Of course there is a limit to how often you should be making errors and if you are constantly messing up it could be that you’re in way over your head in the first place and you might well consider a change in jobs, responsibilities, employers etc. Doing this is not an admission of yourself as a failure but rather, a sign of your wisdom and recognition that you would be better suited doing something different.

Imagine then going to an interview and being asked, “Tell me about a time you messed up and how did you respond to your error?” The interviewer is not so much interested in the error you made ironically, but rather your response to realizing your mistake. What did you do? Did you fix it alone? Did you preserve a relationship with a client or even improve it in the end with your actions? Did you own up to the gaff or turn your head, whistle to the ceiling and with your hands in your pockets, casually walk away?

Lastly, when others around you have their moment in the spotlight and make mistakes, realize that they might already be stressed, worried or embarrassed. Not much will be gained by making them feel even worse by talking about it extensively. How you support or ridicule someone at this time often says more about you then them. And of course what goes around comes around.

I”ll leave the blog today with this then; Mess up? Fess up!