Mistakes happen… a lot. A kid is forgotten and left on a school bus. A medical doctor is dragged off of an airplane even though he has a ticket (“mistake” is a very inadequate word for this one!). A teacher uses duct tape to keep a child in a chair (really?!). A world leader has an affair with the wife of his top military leader and then has him killed to cover it up (yes – David, King of Israel). A teenager puts a smoke bomb in his neighbor’s front door (I confess, this one was me). Mistakes happen and are almost always a result of human error – which means they aren’t going away anytime soon. While we need to strive to prevent as many mistakes as possible, we also need to respond appropriately when they happen.
In their exceptional book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain that when faced with perceptions or data different from our own, we have a strong propensity to dismiss, discredit, or distort both the perceptions and those who hold to them. They note, “Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action, but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification.” Below are some of the most common reactions when confronted with an error and a few suggestions on a better way to respond.
5 Common Reactions When A Mistake Happens
Deny. Denial is an outright claim that it wasn’t you that made the mistake. “It is not true.” “I was not involved.” “I don’t know anything about that.” These are just a few phrases that may come into play when someone is denying responsibility. When we make a mistake, denial often emerges from an unhealthy blend of fear (“I don’t want to get fired”) and pride (“I don’t want people to think less of me”). Denial can begin to eat away at us and, when we do it often, it will harden us so we can no longer differentiate between what is true and what is not.
Soften. When confronted with a mistake, rather than outright deny it, we sometimes have a tendency to soften the error by minimizing it as well as the impact it had on others. A few softening phrases are “Well, it could have been much worse,” or “What’s the big deal – it wasn’t all that bad.” Softening often disrespects those harmed by the mistake since it downplays the damage and the resulting emotions others are feeling.
Blame. Blaming others is often the go-to routine when a mistake is made. If denial is no longer an option, why not blame someone else? Blaming may be in play when you hear phrases such as “It wasn’t me, it was her that did it,” or “I did not instruct him to do that so I am not sure what he was thinking.” Blaming is used to take the optics off of yourself and place that negative attention on someone else.
Ignore. Want to really infuriate someone that was on the receiving end of a mistake? Ignore them. Don’t respond to her message. Ignore his emails. Refuse to meet with him. This is especially common when large bureaucratic organizations make a mistake and refuse to respond to a customer complaint. Infuriating is an understatement! When hurt people are ignored, they want to be vindicated. And they want accountability. And sometimes, they feel the only recourse is through litigation. Usually, ignoring is not a wise strategy.
Shift focus. If blaming shifts the attention off of yourself and onto another person, shifting focus takes the attention off of the error and onto another topic. Like an escaped criminal being tracked, this strategy is designed to through people off of your scent! When someone is shifting focus away from a mistake, you might hear phrases like “Well, you aren’t perfect either. Remember when you…” or perhaps, “I feel we have bigger issues to deal with than this, like…” Some people can become very talented at smoothly shifting focus away from their mistakes and onto another topic or the mistakes of others.
2 Better Ways to Respond When a Mistake Is Our Fault
Own it. The Bible reminds us that we are responsible for our own conduct (Galatians 6:5). Saying “I made a mistake, and I am sorry for how it has affected you” makes a huge difference. It’s that simple. If it is a serious error that involves liability, your insurance carrier will want to weigh in. And it is wise to have legal counsel. But sometimes, owning it reduces the risks since people often pursue legal remedies when they feel they haven’t been respected or acknowledged.
I was recently listening to an interview on NPR between a director of nursing at a hospital and a woman whose baby died in the care of that hospital. A mistake was made by one of the nurses that accidently disabled an alarm which resulted in the loss of the child. Rather than blame or deny, the director of nursing and the hospital took full responsibility. Amazingly, the mother never sued, and she and the director of nursing have maintained a personal friendship to this day. Sometimes, owning an error deescalates both the situation as well as the hostility that can rapidly grow when a victim feels that we are denying, blaming, or ignoring.
Correct it. While it’s always best practice to prevent mistakes from happening, the next best thing we can do is to make things right. In other words, fix the mistake. If the mistake resulted in missing someone’s expectations, we should strive to exceed them when making corrections. A number of years ago, I was co-leading a summer event for high school students where we arranged for them to serve in inner-city communities. One of the projects we had arranged ended up being poorly run and did not meet the high school group’s expectations. When the leader told me about this, I was disappointed that we had not succeeded in our mission for this particular group. While I could not fix the project at the moment, I did provide the group with a significant discount when they joined us the following year (they were regular attenders). They were appreciative and satisfied. The project was ours. We were the ones who planned it, and we had to own it. We were therefore responsible to correct it to the best of our ability.
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Jay Desko is the Executive Director of The Center Consulting Group and serves on the Senior Leadership Team at Calvary Church in Souderton, PA. Jay brings experience in the areas of organizational assessment, leadership coaching, decision-making, and strategic questioning. Jay’s degrees include an M.Ed. in Instructional Systems Design from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Leadership from The Union Institute.