By Vicki Wrona, PMP:

We’ve all made mistakes, and we’ve all witnessed both good and bad examples of how to react to those mistakes — sometimes on a very public stage. Professionally, what can we learn from these?

First, let’s discuss different reactions to mistakes. There are three approaches to handling a mistake: apologize right away, apologize to save face, or don’t apologize at all.

There was a baseball game on June 2, 2010 involving the Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Armando Galarraga. Up until the end of the game, he had pitched the elusive perfect game, retiring 26 straight batters. It appeared that batter #27 was easily out but the umpire called the runner safe, causing the game not to go down in the record books as a perfect game. Later that evening, when umpire Jim Joyce saw replays, he realized he made a bad call which cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

Joyce had the presence of mind to know and admit when he made a mistake. The next day, Joyce admitted his mistake and expressed real remorse in his apology to Galarraga, saying that he hasn’t forgiven himself. To his credit, Galarraga graciously accepted the apology, recognizing that there are times when mistakes are made.

A second example of a mistake we heard plenty about in the news around that time was the April 2010 BP oil spill. Here, as with Toyota earlier in 2010, BP refused to admit wrongdoing on their part, finding many other items and people to blame. Finally, when BP’s CEO Tony Hayward did issue an apology in a TV commercial, it was largely seen as insincere, inauthentic. They appeared more sorry to have gotten caught than for the tragedy caused.

A third approach is to ignore the mistake entirely as demonstrated by FIFA and Malian referee Koman Coulibaly a few months later on June 18, 2010. After countless hours of watching video tape no one seems to be able to explain the mysterious foul that caused the final goal scored by the U.S. to be disallowed. This led to a draw between Slovenia and the U.S. and could have ramifications later in the tournament. So far, even though the game report claims a foul on Edu of the U.S. team, FIFA has not responded to the criticisms levied by the international media.

Why do I mention these situations? Because as leaders, managers or employees in the business world, we can learn from the actions of others. Is your project going to be late? Are you starting to run over budget? Did an unexpected event occur that you don’t have a plan for? Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes if they are real. If there is a real mistake made, admit it and discuss what is being done to fix it. This doesn’t mean you go around admitting every little thing. Focus on the ones that matter, those with repercussions. Not admitting a mistake or trying to shift the blame to someone or something else doesn’t fool anyone, except maybe yourself. And in the process, you will lose credibility. We would do well to remember this when working with our customers, bosses or team members.

Patrick Lencioni does a good job of describing this in his book Getting Naked. He discusses how being open, transparent, even vulnerable with clients allows for trust and honest, true relationships to build. His consulting firm has operated on that premise for years and has grown.

There are even consultants now who advise firms on how to make amends, understanding that admitting a mistake could include accepting a possible legal liability. Lee Taft of Taft Solutions says that a true apology can have a positive legal effect. For example, in 2004, the Dallas Police Department was involved in a fake drug scandal. Rather than pretend nothing happened or try to blame someone else, the Dallas City Council apologized to victims and announced that new measures would be put in place to make sure this could not happen again. There was a legal risk in admitting this so openly and there were legal awards paid out because of this scandal, but the conclusion by some is that the city paid less than they might have because they removed the “outrage factor” and inflated awards.

Just as there are risks when admitting mistakes, there are risks in not admitting a mistake. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that doctors who make mistakes and stay silent increase their suffering, putting them at higher risk for addiction, burnout or suicide.

What can we learn from all this? Remember that you are not fooling anyone by pretending an error or bad situation didn’t happen. The important thing is that you step up and do your best to fix it. Keep honest and open lines of communication. That can overcome many legitimate mistakes. In summary:

  1. Apologize quickly and with feeling, showing that you understand the impact of your actions
  2. Offer a solution or remedy if one is available
  3. Show how you plan to work this into your process to prevent it from happening again

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