The Gift of Mistakes: The Secret Art of Turning Your Worst Blunders Into Trust

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In life, it’s not the mistakes you make that count. It’s how you handle those mistakes.

I took today off from work. I am at home taking care of my under-the-weather son while my wife goes and runs a few errands, giving her a much-needed break after having spent the last week and a half in constant care of our little snot-making soldier.

My son and I are in the middle of watching an Octonauts episode about the “Snot Sea Cucumber” (see episode 22–you can’t make this stuff up)  when, at 1:07 pm, I get a text message:

“Are you going to be joining the 1:00 pm conference call?”

“[Expletive],” I think to myself. “I had a conference call today?”

I thought through the list of potential people I could have a conference call with and drew blanks. I whip out my work laptop and go to my calendar. Sure enough, last week I accepted an invitation to be on a conference call at 1:00 pm today. Now, it is 1:10 pm, and I am 10 minutes late.

Sigh.

My first gut reaction is to tell the person that sent the text there was an issue with my calendar. I run through a few possible lines that would preserve my professional composure and get me “off the hook.” It’s like there’s a kicking and screaming toddler in my head throwing a temper tantrum while making up pathetic excuses for me. What he comes up with is the following (note: all of these are outright lies):

  1. “My calendar didn’t sync right.”
  2. “I didn’t get your invite.”
  3. “There’s a timezone issue, and I thought this was at 2:00 pm.”

The outright truth was:

  1. I forgot.
  2. I didn’t check my calendar (which would have made forgetting irrelevant).

Instead of immediately telling the truth, my brain starts spinning out all of these lies and dishonest thoughts. Frankly, I don’t know why this happens–but it does. It’s like the insecure ego in my head goes into overdrive to make up narratives where it is still the competent, confident professional it desperately wants me to be. You know, the completely fictional version of myself that doesn’t ever make mistakes.

Now, it’s 1:11 pm. I briefly consider not calling in, thinking to myself, “There’s other people on the call. They probably don’t need me.” I read the summary of the meeting invite. Essentially, I’m the reason for the call. That won’t work.

At 1:12 pm, my moral self snaps back in, and I dial into the conference call, apologize for being late, and tell them the truth: I forgot.

In Stephen M.R. Covey’s book The Speed of Trust, he argues that trust is based on two things: character and competence If either of these are lacking, you won’t trust the person. The most truthful person (high character) who is constantly a train-wreck in their professional life (low competence) is not exactly the kind of employee you want to have. On the other hand, an extremely competent and intelligent person with low character is the stereotypical corporate villain you would do well to avoid, despite the neatly pressed Armani suits and Lamborghini in the parking lot.

In real life, character and competence are not simply binary variables that you either have or don’t have. Instead, we all have degrees of character and competence. We can be perfectly honest and forthright with our employees but not our bosses (and vice-versa). We can have generally good character but over-promise due to our willingness to please. We can, and do, stretch the truth to fit the person we are talking to. Much in the same way, we are all competent at times and incompetent at others. At times, however, our high levels of competence can result in complacency. And when we get complacent, mistakes happen, hurting our perceived competence in they eyes of our colleagues.

When we have deviations of competency, most people’s first instinct is to sacrifice their character. They blame others. They blame the workload. They blame the system. They blame the processes. They blame their Outlook calendar (ouch). They blame everyone and everything but themselves.

Or, worse yet, they lie about it and try to cover up their mistake.

Have you ever noticed how when someone lies about a mistake they made just how unbelievable it comes across to everyone but themselves? Generally, when we lie to cover our mistakes, we are feeling defensive and embarrassed and ashamed. And while the words may be convincing (and the best liars are those that root their lies in a degree of truth), our body language and tone fully reveals to all those facts we’d most like hidden. And just like the biblical story in the Garden of Eden, we are Adam, the emperor of the garden, wearing no clothes.

When people lie to cover mistakes they rarely succeed in truly convincing the other person. Even if the other person appears to have believed your lie, they likely know the truth (at least on a subconscious level). This causes that person to lower their assessment of your character, which in turn reduces their level of trust.

Imagine if I had chosen to use one of my three pathetic lies my brain immediately handed me. The three people on the other end of the conference call would have likely accepted them (by not arguing back). However, they would have known the truth and that would have almost certainly cost me trust.

When people lie in the workplace, it not only causes them to question your character but they also distrust your competence. Questions naturally arise like “What else is he/she hiding?” If you’re willing to lie about this thing that was found out, there’s a natural assumption that there may be much more incompetence lurking beneath the surface.

It is for this reason that character and competence are not equally weighted. Character actually matters much, much more than competence when it comes to building trust. Instead of it being weighted at 50/50, it’s much closer to 80/20 in favor of character (this wouldn’t be a good business blog without at least one reference to the 80/20 rule).

Going back to the initial question of how we should handle our mistakes, an important goal should be to maximize the trust in the relationship. At the point we uncover that we’ve made a mistake, we have a decision that involves either:

  1. Admitting the mistake and your responsibility to the parties involved.
  2. Lying and trying to sweep it under the rug.

The first choice is more embarrassing in the short term. It costs you more of  your valuable ego and pride. It is humbling. But at the same time, it builds your reputation as a person of high character and integrity who is willing to own your shortcomings.

The second option is much more appealing to our gut-level instincts (our reptilian brains). It feels better in the short term. Your ego will thank you profusely for not exposing it to be the fraud it in fact is. You may even find yourself secretly smiling to yourself as you tell the lie, which is a natural reflex as your brain thinks it’s found the solution for your short-term pain.

However, the first choice must be taken. It’s the only real option for retaining trust. Any slight deflection or deviation from the core truths of ownership and accountability puts you squarely into the second category. There’s no such thing as partially owning the truth. There’s no such thing as partially taking responsibility. You either own it or you don’t. This becomes the key to building your character points, even if it costs you some competence points in the short-term.

There’s three simple steps to taking any mistake and turning into a positive (though perhaps not pleasant) experience:

  1. State what you failed to do.
  2. State the impact of what you failed to do had on the other person.
  3. State specifically what you are going to do to fix it (if you are able).

By doing these three things, you will be practicing what I call Mistake Judo. Judo is a martial art that involves taking the energy and strength of your opponent (your mistake) and redirecting the impact (the effect on your level of trust). By doing this, your mistakes are actually key opportunities to build trust rather than to tear it down. You will differentiate yourself from your peers and colleagues, as this level of ownership is very rarely seen and practiced in business today.

What you will find, when you start radically taking responsibility for your mistakes is this: People are much more kind and understanding than you would imagine. If you’re dealing with a customer and you own a mistake, they will respond much less angrily and with much less hostility than if you blame “the warehouse” or “the system” or “the policy” or any other structures you previously assigned or deflected blame. Because when you own your mistakes, you allow room for people to offer you grace and understanding. If you don’t, there can be none.

By radically accepting responsibility and accountability when you make mistakes, you will find that people trust you much more than if it had never happened at all. Your friends, family, and colleagues will view you as a person who tells the truth even when it hurts. This is invaluable in expanding your influence and enhancing your credibility.

Your mistakes are your secret weapon to building trust quickly. Don’t lose the gift of your mistakes for the sake of your pride.

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