Learning to own up to mistakes can be a transformative skill for your life and your career.
Making a mistake can be an unpleasant experience. Depending on how many people notice and react to that mistake, they can trigger a whole host of uncomfortable feelings, like shame, humiliation, embarrassment, regret, or anger. Most knee-jerk reactions start with looking for a person to blame or a way to absolve yourself of the responsibility and justify whatever it was you did that led to that. Maybe some of those reactions are even right and another person did carry some of the responsibility that led to it. Either way, there will be moments in your life where you decide to do something and then some weeks, months, or even years later, you realise exactly how much of a mistake it was. That’s just part of everyday life.
Making mistakes at work can be more painful, at least in different ways. It’s so easy to feel like that mistake will sit with you forever, that all of your colleagues will perceive you as the person who did that thing that led to all these problems, or that you’ll never be able to redeem yourself in front of your coworkers. Maybe you’ll think that your hopes for that promotion have been dashed or that your teammates will never respect you in the same way again. So the moment you realise you made a terrible mistake, you’re hit with intense anxiety and fear.
It probably isn’t possible to move away from that feeling completely. There’s nothing wrong with regret, to the extent that it teaches you how to handle something differently in the future. What is wrong is spending time and emotional energy on an outcome that’s already passed. Nothing you can do or feel in the moment will ever change what’s happened so all you can do is focus on what’s coming.
Why does owning up to mistakes matter?
Think of the types of people that you admire and what characterises them. What type of personalities do they have? What do they do really well? When do you look at them and think “I wish I could be like that”? A lot of people will start by listing characteristics like they’re inspirational, generous, decisive, honest and so on. I almost always start with: they’re humble.
Humility is fundamentally about acknowledging that you can’t know the answers to everything, recognising that there will always be gaps in your own perspective and understanding of the world, and then acting that out. This is the characteristic that makes it possible for you to learn from other people when you’re feeling challenged. That’s ultimately how you can start making fewer and fewer mistakes, as you get wiser with experience. The whole point of this is to say: you can only learn from the experiences that you make if you’re actually able to recognise when you make a mistake.
It’s at times when things go wrong that you have the highest potential to grow and develop. When everything’s going right, you can generally treat it as an affirmation that you know what to do. When things are going wrong, that’s when you know that there’s a lot you have to learn. Every mistake can be an opportunity, as long as you’re willing to grab onto it. So, it’s fundamental to be able to recognise them.
At this point, you might be thinking: That sounds all good and well but why does owning up to it matter? Isn’t it enough if I recognise the mistake I made?
Being able to recognise that you’ve made a mistake is of course the first step, even if it’s just deep, deep down, between you and yourself. What takes real self-confidence and character, though, is the part that comes afterwards: when you stand in front of the people who’ve been impacted by that mistake and take responsibility for it. That’s one of those times where you can model the behaviour and the culture that you want to see from everyone around you. Mistakes can have any number of consequences and can impact the people you work with in many ways. It’s hard for everyone to really put it behind them if it feels unresolved and unaddressed. Being able to address it openly is the only way to do so. Addressing things behind walls or with some kind of pretence doesn’t help at all. In fact, it’s only likely to lead to more frustration in the long run because your avoidance will be what everyone remembers you for.
So, you need to be able to own up to a mistake if you want others to respect you, if you want to show that you’ve actually learned from it, and if you want to continue building the kind of open, driven culture that most people thrive in. What happens between you and yourself is not visible to anyone else.
Why is it so hard?
Owning up to mistakes might be worth doing but it’s incredibly difficult.
There have been multiple moments in my career so far where I’ve had to stand up in front of the people I work with and say “I’m sorry, I made a huge mistake.” Each of those situations was hard. Whenever I’ve been there, I’ve always felt incompetent and frustrated with myself, like I should’ve known better. It doesn’t matter how much I try to rationalise my way out of it. Sure, everyone makes mistakes. I don’t think I can be in any way exempt from that. But I still hate the experience of it. I will always have to fight myself a bit to make the words “I screwed up” or “it’s completely my fault” come out of my mouth.
In the same way it’s a fundamentally human reaction to get defensive when you get negative feedback, it’s a human reaction to get defensive when you make a mistake. I don’t think it becomes easier at all with time, rather you get better at gritting your teeth through it and learning to control your emotions well enough that they don’t dictate your actions.
How can you do it anyway?
The most important question is: How can you overcome that fear and make yourself do it anyway? I haven’t found the solution to that yet. That’s a large part of why I’m writing this. But there have been some things that have helped me chip away at my reluctance over time, to make it at least a little less painful:
- Train yourself to self-reflect regularly. You want to get into the habit of learning from your experiences. The only way to do that is to regularly sit down and think about why things might have worked out well and when they don’t, why they didn’t. When you start doing that regularly, you will at least have an easier time recognising that when you make mistakes and then actually learning from them for the future.
- Don’t shy away from taking responsibility. This is one of those things that’s much easier said than done but it’s ultimately a mindset shift. You need to catch yourself each time you try to blame something on someone else and ask yourself: What could I have done before or what could I do now that would change this? This type of mindset shift will have a huge influence on all areas of your life if you really work on it. Maybe you get annoyed at your colleagues for not running efficient meetings. Instead of thinking “why are they all so inefficient,” you can think “how can I influence or change that” and you’ll immediately find yourself far more able to see where you have a responsibility to act.
- Ask the people you work with for feedback, often, especially critical feedback. Even small pointers can give you hints for how to improve and where your blind spots are. When you’re able to train yourself out of getting defensive in response to critical feedback, you’ll eventually be able to transfer that to situations in which you make mistakes too. If you’re lucky, some of the feedback you’ll get will be about honest mistakes that you’ve made, so that can be a great practice run.
- The moment you recognise you’ve made a mistake, make a commitment to yourself about what you would do differently in future and own up to it to someone else. It doesn’t have to be someone at work or someone who was directly impacted by it at all. It can be just a friend who you know has no reason to judge or care all that much about your minor mistakes at work. Just saying the words “I wish I hadn’t done that, now I would handle it in a completely different way” out loud will make it more normal for you in future.
- Next time you make a mistake, try to address it. Try to say “I take complete responsibility” or “how this turned out is on me” and see what happens. In the majority of cases, you’ll find that it usually opens up fruitful and meaningful conversations that everyone walks away from a little wiser.
These are all things I remind myself of every time I find myself in that situation. It never feels easy but it does get easier and it always pays off in the long term.