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How to respond to mistakes at work

Oct 16, 2020 | Business

Mistakes happen: the email is sent to the wrong person, the decimal point is put in the wrong column. What does your response say about you and your organisation? How to respond to mistakes at work, is the question on everyone’s lips!

Pointing the finger is frequently the response when things go belly up in business, but playing the blame game isn’t a good tactic for individuals or for organisations. Research shows that a culture of blame inhibits innovation. Then why does scapegoating continue to be so widespread?

The instinct to blame can stem from insecurity or low self-esteem. If you can identify someone else who is at fault, you can preserve your own self-esteem. When we blame people, it feels that we have more self-control and appear better to those around us. Fear is another reason people “throw others under the bus.”

If people feel they won’t get that promotion or salary rise, or, worst-case scenario, they will lose their job, then naturally they want to go into self-preservation mode and blame someone else. Unfortunately often, it is junior colleagues with the least power who are singled out for blame. Our advice to them is to identify someone in HR or a senior person who doesn’t work in the same department, but who understands the culture and can offer an external perspective and mentoring.

If the fear of failure takes hold in an organisation, it is difficult to shake off. Despite multiple studies that show failure is good for learning, blame culture can spread like a virus. In a series of experiments, researchers even found a tendency for people to start blaming others shortly after witnessing someone else passing the buck.

If the person doing the blaming is right at the top of the organisation, the message filtering down is that a blame culture is acceptable. The moment we choose to blame someone or something, we abrogate any kind of responsibility for ourselves and any influence over what we can do about the situation. Blame is often the tip of the iceberg – the outcome of frustration and anxiety that have built up over time. The longer the blame game is allowed to continue, the more people are likely to take to their corners and stay there.

The best advice for a HR or senior manager is to tackle the issue quickly, but don’t go in and investigate, because you are likely to get drawn in and risk being seen as partisan. Call independent people in, get around a table and sort it out. Using mistakes as valuable lessons is a perfect way for a leader and their team to learn and grow. Strive to build competence and shift the focus to the future.

Even at the very top, people can fail, feedback can be taken on board, and the end result is something better. Identify what is acceptable and how blame can be defused and turned into something positive.

Here at the DGL headquarters, we are fortunate to have some great leaders that encourage us to ‘have a go’ ‘do our best’ and ‘learn from our mistakes’ and they continuously share their knowledge and insight in all aspects of the business. If you would like to improve your leadership skills or have a chat about how best to respond to mistakes in your workplace, get in touch today!

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