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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd


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How to take responsibility for your failures

Owning up to your faux pas is daunting, but necessary if you want to cultivate a transparent, safe-to-fail company culture. Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership, explores how to acknowledge your blunders with dignity.
Spilled milk, depicting mistakes and failures

A sinking feeling grips us when we realise our blunders at the office. But we must remember that slips are an organic part of learning, furnish chances for progress and problem-solving, and can, in some cases, lead to innovation.

Concealing our missteps can, contrastingly, erode confidence and stoke anxiety and mistrust among those affected. How we address our failures frequently holds more consequence than the faux pas themselves, not least because concealing our mishaps is more exhausting than admitting to them.

It’s even more of an imperative for leaders to exhibit candour regarding their poor calls and deeds. If those steering the ship can’t exhibit courage facing failures, how then can we expect transparency from others downstream?

Fessing up to your faux pas

Acknowledging your mistakes is necessary for various reasons, the most significant often being the prevention of escalation. Taking ownership of your errors helps minimise the potential for more serious negative consequences and facilitates faster problem resolution.

When others see there is a safe space to own up to errors and miscalculations and learn from them, it helps to strengthen the foundations of a positive work culture. Accountability shows honesty, professionalism and integrity, which are three important leadership qualities. Being transparent and communicating clearly when things are not going according to plan later opens up discussions about how to proceed and improve next time, and the sharing of ideas and respectful opinions.

A team that learns from mistakes is more innovative.

Creating safe-to-fail work cultures

When you own your mistakes, others may follow your lead and it is entirely possible that any mistakes they make in the future could have greater consequences than yours, so having an open work culture keeps the business safer.

I was working in a factory as a young man on a milling machine and one day I mistakenly misaligned the blades as I lowered the assembly into place. The result was a frightening ‘ping’ sound as one snapped off. Luckily no one was hurt and I felt terrible about my error, but my thoughts immediately went to protecting myself: “How can I get away with this, how can I stay out of trouble?” I owned up, and the Production Manager helped me learn what to do next time to avoid repeating the mistake. I felt shame and feared retribution, and received support and learning.

Mistakes, openly acknowledged, can lead to innovation

We’ve found that a team that learns from mistakes is more innovative. Team members are more willing to take risks and explore new ideas if they know that the organisation values learning from failures. Contributing to the problem-solving process demonstrates your commitment to the team.

When you have made a mistake, you have a unique opportunity for self-reflection and learning, which is crucial to personal and professional development and admirable qualities of a leader. It keeps focus on what is right and necessary rather than, by contrast, lying and putting energy into maintaining an untruth which has an exhausting multiplier effect.

Take these four steps to learn from your mistakes…

There is a way to own up to your missteps that will, ultimately, lead to greater trust, respect and growth.

1. Communicate what has happened with someone you trust

Be proactive rather than attempt to conceal. Lead by example and be open and honest. Covering up will result in losing momentum and deplete energy, motivation, goodwill and trust. 

2. Acknowledge what has happened but try to keep it in context

Allow yourself the necessary time to process and experience your emotions but try not to ruminate (easier said than done!), keep things in perspective and then place it in the ‘learnt from that’ pile and move on.

3. Address any ensuing issues and give progress reports to build trust

Plan for the future to avoid a reoccurrence of the problems. Perhaps a practice run is needed next time or more feedback. Share ideas and tap into your colleague’s wealth of knowledge, talent, and experience. Understand rebuilding trust and resetting perceptions may take time, so be patient.

4. Turn on your growth mindset to stop you from allowing setbacks to stunt your progress

Remember it’s better to evolve than revolve. Resilience, determination and flexibility in thinking enable us to adapt, problem-solve and grow.

Interested in this topic? Read How to avoid ‘failure by democracy’

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