Coaching Tuesday: Learning from Your Mistakes

Patricia Overland / December 16, 2014

Try, Fail, Try Again Till Success

It’s inevitable: we all make mistakes, hard as it is to admit it. And it’s agonizing when we realize our actions may have had a negative impact on our boss, clients, colleagues, friends, or family.

In the world of coaching, we know that how one responds to a mistake is as important as what one learns from it. Here are three guidelines along with coaching questions that may help you manage your response or coach someone in your organization through a mistake.

Own up. What have you done to be accountable? What apologies have you made? The key is to avoid defending the mistake. An explanation can be useful, but it must come with total ownership—throwing someone else under the bus is not advised. Avoid the “whyne” and stick with the facts. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s a values-led decision to take responsibility.
Learn something. What did you learn from this mistake? Is a process broken? Does communication need to improve? Is a new skill set needed? Learning from mistakes is actually a great way to identify gaps in organizations. Think it through and close those gaps where you can. How can you avoid repeating this mistake in the future? While mistakes may be inevitable, repeating mistakes isn’t useful for you, for others, or for your organization. Get a plan in place to ensure repeat offenses don’t occur.
Move on. What will help you move forward? Momentary agonizing may be part of the process by which we think through mistakes, but it isn’t useful long term. Mistakes often generate emotion, and it can be important to recognize what you are feeling. But berating yourself or others about a mistake won’t accomplish anything and might even cause harm. Recognize the emotion, name it, and maybe even discuss it a bit. Then move forward.

Jules Verne said, “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make because they lead little by little to the truth.”

Humans aren’t perfect. As much as we strive to do well, to succeed, and to be on top of our game, we will make mistakes. How we respond to those mistakes is the true measure of our character. Own them, learn from them, and move on.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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