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The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.
Chances are, you made a few mistake at work this year. Maybe you missed a big deadline or sent an important e-mail loaded with typos. Perhaps you got into a bad habit of showing up late or dressing too casually. Did you steal a project from a colleague, or take credit for someone else’s work? Did you forget to thank someone, or participate in office gossip? It’s alright if you did—as long as you learned from your screw-ups.
“Mistakes can happen to the best of us,” says Ryan Kahn, a career coach, founder of The Hired Group, star of MTV’s Hired! and author of Hired! The Guide for the Recent Grad. “In fact, sometimes these mistakes can turn into opportunities. The trick is in how the mistake is addressed and immediately improved upon.”
Tina Nicolai, an executive career coach and résumé writer, says if you make a mistake on the job, in any situation, you need to “own it and hone it.”
“Own the mistake and admit that you are aware it was made,” she says. “Then put measure in place to correct the problem. Some mistakes are one-time incidents, while others are long range. Long range errors usually result from poor habits that were created. Behaviors can be modified when we recognize what we did or are doing wrong and take measure to ‘course correct.’ Ask for help from your boss or peers, or from external resources.”
David Parnell, a legal consultant, communication coach and Forbes contributor, agrees. He says learning from mistakes requires two very important criteria. “First, you need to be able to take responsibility for your actions; this may be easier said than done. Where work performance is concerned, accepting that you’ve erred, or are imperfect, or wrong or flawed in some other way, can be hard for many. And unless you can accept that you were the cause of the mistake, you will never be empowered to learn from it and fix it.”
Second, he says, mistakes are often associated with failure, which implies a certain finality to the event. “Unless the mistake actually killed you, no mistake is an end, in and of itself. As such, mistakes need to be thought of as feedback about what not to do in the future – giving them dynamism – and not failure, which makes them a static, immovable end. This frame can be very powerful in the realization that you do, indeed, have more opportunities to advance beyond the episode in question.”
Andy Teach, a corporate veteran and author of From Graduation to Corporation, says: “There’s a great old saying, ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ Thankfully, many people do learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of others by observing, listening and evaluating.” If you make mental notes of mistakes, assess why they happened, listen to constructive criticism, and come up with an alternative plan for the next time you’re in the same situation, you won’t make the same mistakes twice, he says.
Many people who make mistakes, especially glaring ones, go out of their way to make sure those mistakes don’t happen again, due to the embarrassment of making them in the first time. “Making mistakes is part of the learning curve and if over time you can decrease the number of mistakes you make by not repeating the same ones over and over again, then you’re showing improvement,” Teach says. And if there’s one thing a supervisor is always looking for from their employees, it is constant improvement.
When you make a mistake at work, most supervisors would sit down with you and point out the mistake, ask why it was made, and make suggestions so that it is not repeated in the future, he says. “Basically, making mistakes forces you to think and act differently the next time around and it’s this flexibility and ability to adapt that makes you a better worker.”
How else can you use your 2013 screw-ups to build a better 2014 at work?
-Take a very pragmatic approach, Parnell says. “Seek to determine how, specifically, the mistake occurred. Was it contextual? Was there something you could have done to prevent it? Were there others involved that may have caused it? What were the roots of the mistake, and how can you prevent them from taking hold again?”
-Understand that the alternative to not taking chances and making mistakes along the way is to be very mediocre, says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job. “Risk takers who run across some speed bumps and move ahead unfettered are best positioned for optimal career growth in 2014. Analyzing how the mistakes made this past year can be avoided in the future – but don’t dwell on them.”
- Keep a log of your most egregious mishaps, Parnell suggests. “There has been an age old debate over which is more motivational – the carrot or the stick. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky settled this through prospect theory, however; it is the stick. Harness that knowledge by outlining the things that led up to your major mistakes, and keep yourself acquainted with the log. This way, you are much less apt to repeat your errors.”
- Own up to your mishaps. “If you do, you’ll be far more successful in 2014,” Taylor says. “Being accountable for errors, even if they occur under your purview, is essential in gaining trust. Conversely, hiding mistakes that affect project outcomes will usually come back to haunt you.”
-Leverage these screw-ups by seeking help from others. “There are few qualities that are more ingratiating than humility and responsibility,” Parnell says. “Admitting to having made a mistake, and seeking help on how best to overcome it, are very powerful tools and speak directly to our innate, altruistic drives.”
-Apologize when necessary. Owning up to a mistake is crucial (and admirable)—but if you seem indifferent about making an apology, your bosses and co-workers may easily become frustrated. “They want you to acknowledge and apologize for your mistakes so you hone your future actions,” Taylor explains. “It’s also human nature, as the mistakes that you make at work are likely to affect others. Your boss may have to save face to a client, or your team may have to pick up the slack. It’s common courtesy. The key is to put past mistakes aside in 2014, and move ahead to the bigger picture – achieving success in the coming year.”
She says it’s “wiser to follow your mission and think of the possibilities as the New Year arrives, versus focusing on the ‘what ifs.’” If it weren’t for mistakes, many products and visions would have never come to fruition, Taylor adds. “Mistakes are a natural outgrowth of the human mind, literally and figuratively, at work.”
Teri Hockett, chief executive of What’s For Work?, concludes: “Screw-ups can actually work in our favor if we acknowledge them and reflect on what we can do differently moving forward. The reality is, no one is perfect and we all make mistakes. While mistakes are unfortunate and often lead to challenges, we have a choice in how we deal with them.”
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