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5 tips for effectively admitting and learning from mistakes

Making mistakes is synonymous with being human.

Assume that at some point in your career, or maybe even at some point today, you will make a mistake. The way you handle the situation will determine whether your blunder helps you grow or simply tarnishes your reputation.

"Recognise that making a mistake is a part of learning and growth, admitting mistakes is a part of building trust in a relationship, and repairing mistakes is how you affirm your credibility," said Deborah Grayson Riegel, a business leadership communication consultant and author of Go To Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask For, and Accept Help. "You should think of mistakes as opportunities to demonstrate what you're made of, as opposed to something to hide from."

For finance professionals, mistakes can be costly, but typically not life-threatening.

"The thing with accounting is nobody dies, right? And I think we all have to keep that in mind," said Gabrielle Luoma, CPA, CGMA, co-founder and CEO at MOD Ventures LLC, based in Tucson, Arizona, in the US. "That perspective is important, especially when this is your career and you care so much about the client, you do have to set aside that fear factor and be honest and admit mistakes in order to build trust."

If you've just made a mistake, Riegel and Luoma recommend first having a conversation with yourself, seeking out a second opinion, taking responsibility, cleaning up the mess, and pinpointing lessons learned.

Have a conversation with yourself. Riegel argued that the hardest conversation you need to have is the one you have with yourself.

"Many of us actually have a really hard time admitting to ourselves that we've made a mistake," she said.

The moment you've made a mistake, Riegel recommends taking a breath and acknowledging that error to yourself. Be aware that some of the voices in your head might be overly harsh and shaming, saying things like, "You always do this. How could you not have seen this?" Or you might automatically start blaming others, thinking, "Well, if they had just given me more time, I would have been able to check my work."

Riegel recommends speaking to yourself in a forward-thinking way. Instead of saying to yourself, "I'm always screwing something like this up and I'll never get better at it," say something like, "All right, everybody makes mistakes, and here's an opportunity for me to act professionally."

Seek out help to understand the impact. Especially if you're new to your role, you may need to speak to your manager to figure out the scale of your mistake.

"A new hire might not know if it's a life-altering mistake or just a tiny mistake, so I think it's really important to involve your supervisor so you can start to learn how to make those judgements and decide what course of action is necessary," Luoma said.

After you've had that conversation with yourself, gather all the facts and then speak with your manager so you can understand the implications of your mistake and determine whether you need to alert the client.

Of course, openly admitting mistakes to your manager will be much easier in a psychologically safe environment. If you're in a management or leadership position, you can help create that environment by not punishing employees for honest mistakes and visibly taking responsibility for your own mistakes.

"If you have a leader who is regularly, openly, and vulnerably saying, 'I really screwed something up and I want to share with you what I did, what my blind spots were, what I learned, and what I'm going to do differently,' that is one of the most powerful things a leader can do," Riegel said.

Avoid a passive apology, and open a dialogue. When owning up to a mistake, resist giving a non-apology that places some of the blame on others.

For example, don't say something like, "I'm sorry that you didn't give me enough time," or "Mistakes were made." Instead, take clear responsibility by using "I" statements, such as "I apologise", "I was wrong", or "I made a mistake."

Riegel said to think about communicating within past, present, and future — outlining what happened, where things stand now, and what the plan is, keeping everything clear and concise. She added that you should aim for a dialogue rather than a monologue.

"As much as we want to apologise and get out of there, you owe it to the relationship and to your trustworthiness and credibility to ask the other person to share what they noticed and what impact it had on them, because you might have made a mistake that really put somebody in a bind," Riegel said.

Clean up the mess. After apologising, take time to figure out how to make things right again.

"A question I've been using for years is, 'What do I need to clean up with you?'" Riegel said. "The idea behind that is when we make a mistake, we might make a mess."

She said the cleanup process can include work-related tasks, such as any work you need to do to get a project back on track, as well as interpersonal mending, in cases where you may have embarrassed someone in front of a client, for example. She added that once you've cleaned up your mess, don't assume that's the end of it.

"You want to check back with them and ask, 'Were you able to get your work back on track? Is there anything else you need from me in order to put this behind you?'" Riegel said.

Luoma pointed out that if the mistake stemmed from a faulty process, you should also take this time to revise that process so the mistake is less likely to happen again.

"Understand that there may be a crack in your process that allowed you to make that mistake in the first place," Luoma said.

Assess the mistake with an eye for learning. Once you have cleaned up your mess and the emotional charge has faded, take some time to objectively reflect on your mistake and what you can learn from it.

Riegel recommends asking yourself what contributed to the mistake and what you need to do differently in the future to have a better outcome.

"Using the word 'contribution', rather than 'blame' or 'fault', takes away some of the embarrassment of making a mistake, which everybody does, and is the only way that we learn," Riegel said.

You could also consider implementing team debriefing sessions when things go wrong or right, as they do in hospitals and the armed forces. This strategy can help to destigmatise mistakes and make sure everyone is constantly learning from both positive and negative outcomes.

"If you make it OK for people to make mistakes and learn from them, you will drive innovation and collaboration," Riegel said. "If you have a culture where mistakes can't be admitted, you are putting yourself and your firm at tremendous risk."

— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.