No one likes making mistakes and no one likes getting things wrong. We want to show that we’re intelligent and capable people. We don’t like to show weakness, fallibility or to make people question our competence. We don’t want to give anyone a reason to doubt us – especially at work.
However, no one’s perfect, and some mistakes are to be expected and understandable. Of course, you should never aim to make mistakes, but when you do, you can either see it as a failure and feel bad about yourself, or you can use it as a chance to learn and grow.
It’s said that to err is human and to forgive is divine, perhaps we should add that to learn is angelic.
Own it and make a plan to stop it happening again
Most managers can overlook the occasional mistake or accident, but they won’t appreciate you lying or trying to shift the blame. When it isn’t your fault, you should stand up for yourself, but when it is, you should be willing to own up to it.
The first step to growing is being honest to yourself, and the first step of moving on professionally is being able to tell your manager that you know you got something wrong and you’re taking action to stop it happening again.
If you made the mistake because you found what you were doing particularly difficult, you weren’t appropriately trained, you felt overwhelmed or something unexpected occurred, by talking to your manager you can work together to rectify the situation. By asking for extra training, guidance or support, you can show you’re taking active steps to stop it happening again.
If you made a mistake because you weren’t paying attention to what you were doing, or were rushing and cutting corners, you should still be prepared to talk about it. If it caused serious problems, your manager is going to want to know what happened and why. Again, explain how you’re going to make sure it won’t happen again.
View it as a learning experience
The most important thing to do after making a mistake, or you try something unsuccessfully, is to pick yourself up and learn from the experience. Use the mantra “there is no failure, only feedback” to remind yourself that when something goes ‘wrong,’ it’s not a moment of weakness or shame, you’ve simply gained another point of data on what works and what doesn’t. The next time you attempt it, you’ll know you need to do something different.
To take this one step further, it’s been said that you learn more from your mistakes than successes. However, since no one has enough time to make all the mistakes themselves, you should learn from other people’s mistakes too. When you hear that a colleague or a friend got something wrong, take a moment to think what lesson you can take from it too.
Label and reframe your feelings
Sometimes, despite learning lessons and trying to move on, the memory of our failures and the fear of repeating them stay with us. When this happens, try labelling and reframing those feelings. Think about the root of your thoughts and feelings – deep down, are you worried about embarrassing yourself or concerned of the repercussions of things not working out?
Once you’ve pinpointed your true emotional state, the next step is to reframe it and put it into a realistic context. If you’re worried about embarrassing yourself, think about how many people will actually know, and of those how many are actually likely to judge you harshly? Is it more likely that others will step in and offer their help and knowledge?
You can also completely reframe the whole situation. Rather than being afraid of failure and focusing on what would go wrong, be excited for the feeling of learning something new you can now apply to achieve success. Think about how good it’s going to feel when you complete that project and tick it off your to do list. Even jobs you don’t enjoy bring a sense of satisfaction when they’re finished. Or you could start thinking of things that are ‘hard’ as things that are a ‘challenge’ to be overcome.
It’s also useful to keep a record of your past successes to look back on when you’re feeling less confident or nervous. Whether it’s a bullet point list or a full portfolio, being able to remember what you’ve achieved already will spur you on to even more success. It reframes one disappointment as an exception, not the rule.
The Belief Cycle
After a failure, fears can haunt you but you mustn’t let that hold you back from trying again. The way you think about your actions and upcoming events will affect their outcome, so it’s crucial to start with a positive outlook. The Belief Cycle (pictured below) shows how beliefs, thoughts, feelings, behaviours and outcomes are all interlinked.
Think about giving an important presentation: if you’ve internalised the belief that you’re going to mess up, then as you stand up to speak, you’ll be thinking about all the things that can go wrong. This will make you feel worried and nervous, which will make you stumble over words, forget important information or freeze up. This will reinforce your initial belief that you were going to perform poorly, and make you even more anxious next time.
On the other hand, if you started by telling yourself that the presentation will succeed, you’ve practiced and you’re prepared, then you’ll stand up thinking of all the ways this is going to go well. This will make you feel confident, which will make you speak with more power and authority, resulting in a much better outcome and making you feel even better about the next one you need to do.
Failure can be hard and it’s disappointing when things go wrong, but by remembering to take lessons from our mistakes, value the learning and think more positively about the situation, you really can come back stronger and more successful than ever.
Find more advice for improving your personal effectiveness and see how we can help you and your people by taking a look at our Learning Solutions.