How to Respond to a Mistake

As an individual, it doesn’t take long to realize Alexander Pope’s timeless line “to err is human.” As a leader, it can be downright frustrating dealing with the errors of those we lead. But it’s how we respond to those mistakes that sets great leaders apart.

If someone on your team has fouled things up, why don’t you try some of these responses?


Begin with Praise

Sometimes when a mistake has been made, the offending person is more than aware and dreading the upcoming interaction. Other times, they are oblivious. In either case, the way you begin the conversation will more than likely set the tone for future performance. No matter how badly someone botches things up, there is usually a silver lining somewhere. Begin by catching the person doing something right. This demonstrates that you noticed and that you care. It also sets a positive tone for the rest of the conversation (and future ones).

Ask for the Other Person’s Assessment

One of the most practical ways to address a performance snafu is to ask for the other other person’s feedback before you give your own. There are a couple reasons. First, if you open by sharing your concerns, it puts the other person on the defensive right off the bat. Second, people are always much more likely to follow through on their own ideas than the ideas of others. Just be careful that you don’t ask for the other person’s feedback only when there are evident mistakes – it won’t take long to pick up on that pattern.

Make the Fault Seem Easy to Correct

This is Dale Carnegie‘s 8th principle for being a leader. Most mistakes don’t error in their entirety but in just a small piece. I recently worked with a golf coach who had me adjust my swing. When I hit a nasty slice, I expected him to confirm how ugly it looked. But instead, he’d tell me it was “almost perfect” and I just needed to make a little adjustment and try again. Making the fault seem easy to correct helps distinguish between a fatal and a fixable error.

Redirect the Energy

The attention of an error usually tends to be the negative outcome – and along with it negative energy. Unless you redirect the energy to something positive, the focus stays in the wrong place. Bring the focus back to the positive desired outcomes and tie it back to what is “in it” for the individual and for other stakeholders if the outcome is performed correctly.

Provide Constructive Feedback

Feedback that is un-constructive may be true, correct, factual, objective and warranted. Feedback that is constructive is useful for positive change. Help the person you are working with understand what they can do differently in the future (including the critical thinking components) to get the results you both want.

Give Second Chances

One of the best examples of a second chance was Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb. After laboring for 24 hours, his team finally created what they hoped to be the first functioning bulb. Edison handed it to a young boy to take it up the stairs of their building to test it. Unfortunately the boy dropped the bulb and it was ruined. Shrugging off the frustration, Edison’s team worked for another 24 hours and Edison entrusted the same boy with the same task. The rest is history.

When people make a mistake, there is a sense in which they are in our debt. A second chance may not erase the debt but it demonstrates trust and builds enormous amounts of loyalty. And motivation doesn’t get much higher than trying to prove that trust is well-placed.

Have you ever had a boss who responded like a leader when you made a mistake?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.