Imagine two scenarios.
First, we are at a restaurant. Scanning the menu, we see lots of great options. It’s hard to decide. But finally, we do. We put our order in and sit back, mouth watering in anticipation. Finally, it arrives. And it’s wrong. We wanted french fries and got Brussels sprouts. Or vice versa. Either way, it disappoints us. When we point it out, the restaurant is very apologetic, brings out new food and takes something off the bill.
Portions of this article are excerpts from my book, The I.T. Leaders’ Handbook, available in paperback and ebook from fine bookstores everywhere.
Same restaurant. Same menu. And we once again get the Brussels sprouts. Sigh. This time, the restaurant suggests that we really do want the Brussels sprouts because they are superb. They seem reluctant to fix the problem. Finally, they bring out a small plate of fries, giving the impression that it is a big hassle. And make no change to the bill.
Leaving aside the brutal reality of restaurant economics, the first scenario is better. The restaurant made a mistake, but they acknowledged it and fixed it quickly.
We all have stories like this: a car takes too long to get repaired, a movie theater charges an extra ticket on the credit card, or a vendor drops the ball on a task handoff. A mistake is made and then handled. Sometimes we discover it. Sometimes, even better, the vendor discovers it and tells us about it. “I’m sorry, but it will take a day longer to get your car done. We ordered the wrong part. We discovered it, ordered the correct part, and we have taken 5% off your bill for the delay.”
When someone acknowledges their mistakes and works to make amends, we feel differently about them. Sometimes, these situations connect us closer to a vendor because we have now seen how they do business and what level of integrity they have. Everybody makes mistakes, some handle it better.
At our work in the IT department, we are the provider. We are the restaurant, the auto repair shop, the movie theater. While we may not call them ‘customers’, we must build a strong customer service mentality. We will make mistakes. How we deal with them is the important part.
There are two parts to “dealing with” a mistake: Acknowledgment and Improving.
Acknowledging mistakes is important. It lets the other person know that we are transparent in how things are working. They know something is wrong, so don’t hide it.
If we drop the ball on something, apologize. Owning the mistake makes it clear that we are not trying to cover things up.
Now there is a gray area between trumpeting our team’s mistakes from the tallest tower and hiding them. We will make mistakes we don’t need to broadcast. Broadcasting differs from acknowledging them. Acknowledging them to those directly involved is key here.
Having a reputation for not owning up to mistakes will undermine our credibility in the organization. Much better to have a reputation for owning and fixing our mistakes.
Acknowledging a mistake allows everyone to move on. When there are arguments about whom to blame, the entire organization suffers.
We can’t really give a $10 coupon when IT makes a mistake. We can’t give them a meal at half price. But we can reduce the chance of making that mistake again. It isn’t possible to prevent all future mistakes, but communicating that we are working to reduce mistakes makes a lot of difference.
Internally, the focus should be on the future. Do we need to prevent this mistake from happening? Or do we need to reduce the possibility that it will happen? Risk analysis and mitigation can help here.
Mistakes come from the process more than the person: a process that doesn’t take a certain situation into account, or a person we haven’t trained sufficiently. That doesn’t mean we don’t individually mess up, but it means that improving the process may be more beneficial than placing blame.
Mistakes can be teaching moments. Often, a self-driven person will see the mistake they made and come up with a suitable response to reduce the chance of it happening in the future. Sometimes, though, it is helpful to talk about the bigger picture behind the problem.
For example, if they dropped the ball on a task because they had too many active tasks at once, the conversation shouldn’t be about dropping the ball, but about how to better manage open tasks and the need to focus and finish to avoid these kinds of problems.
Yes, sometimes an employee makes too many mistakes, and there is a mismatch between the needs of the job and their skills that we need to address. But this isn’t a common thing.
It is far more common that we all make mistakes. When they happen, we need to acknowledge it, learn from it, and move on.
Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash