Beth Wonson & Company

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Empowering Executives, Emerging Leaders, Teams, & Individuals For Over 20 Years

How do you handle mistakes?

I'm frequently asked how to handle mistakes in ways that build up teams, enhance learning and avoid anyone getting thrown under the bus!  

My answer: As the leader, the choice is all yours!


Here's a quick, true story to illustrate my point. Walter (name changed) had a promising future at a major financial firm. He and his wife had recently purchased their dream home and enrolled their kids in the best private schools. One Friday, he was unexpectedly called into the partners’ office. Within an instant, it was pretty clear this was not a happy meeting. oops

The partners solemnly explained to Walter that he had made a $1,000,000 mistake. The partners told Walter to go home and they would reconvene on Monday afternoon.

As you can imagine, that was not a pleasant weekend at Walter’s house. He and his wife anxiously calculated how they would survive without Walter’s income. Walter worried how he would find new employment after such a fatal flaw.

The good news!  The best leaders find value…even in the worst mistakes!

On Monday afternoon, Walter's mouth hung open as the partners explained what was to happen. They presented a list of adjustments including a mentor, oversight on transactions and some course work to complete. It was a well thought out remediation plan. Walter could hardly believe he wasn’t being fired. One of the partners explained that the choice was simple. If they let Walter go, they risked a new person making the same mistake. And their investment in Walter would be down the drain. And despite the depth of the mistake, it was almost a guarantee that Walter would never make that mistake again.


Everyone makes mistakes; that is a given. But not everyone knows how to make the most out of them. Most of us don’t have to deal with $1,000,000 mistakes in our day-to-day business, but we all have to deal with mistakes. How you lead through mistakes will either build your team or break it down. Here are some tips on making the most of the mistakes: 1.  Mistakes are a given. Don’t pretend otherwise. Avoid getting caught in the drama and finger pointing. Or attempting to keep it under wraps. Instead be transparent and candid and let team members know, “We will take a look at this to identify where the gaps and how we can avoid it in the future”.


2.  Model the behavior you desire in others. When you make a mistake, own it. Let your team know you will be accountable. Others will feel safe to follow.


3.  Mistakes have a lot to teach us. Avoid spending a great deal of time identifying who is to blame. Instead go right for the learning. And reiterate the lesson. Leaders know how to translate mistakes into opportunity for improvement.


4.  Mistakes are a symptom. Let mistakes guide you to the underlying issues and broken systems. The best leaders find value in even the worst mistakes! Set aside time to dig deep, turn the facts upside and on their head. Look for patterns. And avoid just covering with band-aides and painkillers.


5.  Leave the gloss in the cosmetics bag. When you say you are sorry, mean what you say. When you are being given an apology, be fully present and acknowledge it. Don’t toss it out casually or gloss over the other person’s words. Being vulnerable and speaking from the heart builds trust.


6.  Mistakes and confidence. Mistakes are part of this journey. The only thing that should surprise us about mistakes is that we are surprised when they happen. Don’t let mistakes erode your confidence or that of your team. Focusing on the learning that comes from mistakes mitigates the impact on esteem and confidence. The next time you or someone on your team makes a mistake:

1.  Take a deep breath



2.  Identify the facts as they are in this moment.



3.  Leave emotions out of the conversation (particularly anger, disappointment or fear).



4.  Allow time and space for apologies to be given and accepted.



5.  Communicate the facts of the mistake (if necessary) in a strengths-based way leaving blame, emotion and fear out of the dialogue.



6.  Call together as many people as necessary to come up with solutions (this empowers the team).



7.  Put necessary steps in place for making sure the same mistake isn’t repeated (training, new systems, technology upgrades, mentoring, etc.).



8.  Check back in a short period of time to make sure there haven’t been any additional mistakes.



9.  Communicate and celebrate successes or learnings!


Let me know how these tips help you build up your team! Email me at or leave me a note on Facebook!


P.S. Click here to for easy tips to transform dull, time-suck meetings into engaging, empowering meetings.