What to do after making a mistake

I’ve made some really big mistakes in my career. One, in particular, was an expensive lesson. I’ve never made that mistake again – and believe that I am a much better “listener” and “reader” of my audiences because of that mistake.

Mistaking the mood of the audience

Years ago I was delivering a culture keynote, twice in back-to-back sessions.  The client was a sales group and, to prepare, I had done some research on their organization. Their company had been fined a year before for what was described as an “ethical lapse.” I thought that I might refer to this lapse when we discussed values alignment during my program.

The first session went beautifully with participants delving into discussions and sharing insights about my culture change process. They welcomed the chance to look at the past year’s issue from the perspective of how potential customers or employees might think of their organization’s values.

The second session was going equally well . . . until I raised the issue of the “ethical lapse.” The reaction was powerful and immediate. Participants told me that raising that issue was unfair, they had moved past it, and they were not at all interested in looking at it any further. The success of the first session’s discussion gave me the confidence to push them harder to apply learnings from the lapse. It blew up in my face! They left my session, right then and there, en masse.


I was totally surprised at their reaction AND I knew I had wrongly discounted their initial reaction. If I had read that resistance more effectively, I could easily have moved to another example to make my point. I didn’t do that and left them no alternative (from their perspective).

I apologized to the client (who had observed both sessions) and we did not charge the client for that consulting day.

Mistakes when blazing new trails

When mistakes are made while you are blazing new trails, they’re part of the learning process. Those aren’t the type of mistakes that we’re discussing here. These mistakes can happen when we:

  • underestimate the time necessary to deliver what was promised,
  • overestimate your expertise to deliver what was promised,
  • discount the reality around us (this is what happened to me in the scenario above),
  • try brand new solutions to a problem, or
  • are not fully present when working on the goal or task.

Fix it fast

Once a mistake is made, the temptation to “cover it up” can be great. The best solution is to, as quickly as possible, share what happened, share what you plan to do to address the situation, and fix it, fast.

  • You may have to negotiate for more time, or, if that’s not possible, you may have to spend the required time to meet the deadline with a high-quality product or service. This kind of resolution can make for long nights – but it’s the right thing to do.
  • You may have to cover the costs of your mistake – maybe not you personally but your team or department may have to take the hit.
  • Your mistake may cost others time, energy, and even reputation – that’s why you must “come clean” as soon as possible, and rectify your mistake as soon as possible.

Team members value honesty and integrity from their peers. Mistakes will be made. Do the right thing to explain the situation, describe your plan to address it, and then deliver on that plan.

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S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He shares insights on organizational culture, servant leadership, employee engagement, and workplace inspiration.

He writes books and articles and records podcasts.

In his free time, he’s a working musician with the Brian Raine band in Denver, CO.