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You Made a Mistake At Work, Now What?

We all make mistakes at work, but why do we tend to make these mistakes seem so much bigger than they actually are? It all comes down to our mindset.

Adam works at a start-up tech company, and he really loves his position. Adam’s boss Rachel is constantly communicating and checking-in with her team’s progress on projects, but she really gives her employees independence and ownership of their work. There is just one rule: if anyone makes a mistake, especially on anything that will be sent to a client, Rachel wants to be informed ASAP! Adam is very diligent and doesn’t make mistakes often, but we’re all human and sometimes mistakes happen! However, Adam thinks that if he can resolve the problem on his own, then why does his boss need know? Rachel always finds out one way or another, and when this happens, she is more upset about being kept out of the loop than the actual mistake. Rachel has expressed her frustrations, but Adam refuses to change his strategy. During his latest performance review, Rachel expressed that if Adam continues to close-off communication, she may not feel comfortable promoting him in the fall. How could she trust him if he only communicates with her when things are going well, but can’t count on him to inform her of problems?

At this point you may be thinking, why is Adam potentially sabotaging his promotion by refusing to follow this one rule? Adam’s boss seems pretty reasonable and understanding that mistakes happen, so why is he being so resistant?

As we’ve discussed in earlier blogs, the way that we think about situations affects the way that we react. Longstanding patterns of thinking become habitual, and even when we know our current way of thinking isn’t super helpful, we may not know how else to think or behave. Other times, even when we know how to think or behave differently, making that change just seems too difficult. It’s the latter that seems to be Adam’s struggle.

Adam has a longstanding belief that, “Having to tell my boss that I made a mistake is too uncomfortable!” As a result, any time that Adam makes a mistake, he goes into panic mode. Wanting to avoid the uncomfortable conversation of telling his boss what happened, Adam does everything that he can to resolve the situation. He figures that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness for not telling Rachel about the mistake then having to come to her with a problem. But, this strategy is no longer effective. Until Adam changes his mindset about having uncomfortable conversations with his boss, he is going to avoid being forthcoming about his mistakes and continue in this same pattern of behaving.

The first step is for Adam to address his Frustration Intolerance about confessing his mistakes. It’s important for Adam to realize that no matter how uncomfortable it may be to admit that he messed-up, he is more than capable of having difficult conversations- no matter how much he dislikes them. If this logic is not convincing enough, there is another way Adam can motivate himself to change his thinking. We recommend that Adam ask himself the following questions: 1) “How is thinking that ‘Having to tell my boss that I made a mistake is too uncomfortable’ helping me achieve my goal of getting promoted?” and, 2) “How is thinking that ‘Having to tell my boss that I made a mistake is too uncomfortable’ getting in the way of achieving my goal of getting promoted?” What we know is that Adam’s current mindset is leading him to feel anxious and then directly going against Rachel’s requirements for a promotion. Through this line of questioning, Adam will be able to see how his current mindset about making mistakes is actually sabotaging him in his goal of getting promoted. This realization can be pretty motivating to help push Adam towards making a change.

If Adam were to change his mindset about making mistakes and practice High Frustration Tolerance, he may think instead: “Telling my boss about a mistake is super uncomfortable, but I can survive the conversation. Dealing with these types of conversations, and the discomfort, is worth it because it could lead to the promotion I’ve been wanting for a year.” Adam still won’t feel great about approaching his boss with an issue, but he wont feel as anxious and potentially avoid his boss. Rather, he will be talking himself into behaving in a way that supports his self-interest.

Adam may never like discussing his shortcomings or mistakes, but being able to have uncomfortable conversations is crucial in a leadership position. More often than not coping with short-term discomfort is necessary to achieve long-term success. If we lose sight of the bigger goal, it is easy to engage in behaviors or ways of thinking that lead to roadblocks for success. Being able to question our mindset, and to think more realistically, can help us to get back on track.

We’re putting on our out-of-office next week, but that gives you plenty of time to catch-up on our most recent blog posts. We’ll be back the following week with more tales from the corporate world.

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