Apologize, take ownership, fix it – say I’m sorry

Mistakes happen. In our trial consulting work, some of the tasks employees must undertake are technical and sometimes difficult. Some tasks are more routine, but nonetheless, due to inexperience, careless work efforts, or for reasons beyond anyone’s control, mistakes happen. That is a given. But, how employees react when informed about the problem varies tremendously. This is, again, something we have had to learn to adapt, beginning in the interview process, to ask how people react to feedback about negative performance. We have had some employees who react in a defensive manner when being notified about a mistake. One employee reacted like a deer in the headlights in disbelief that he could have done anything wrong (apparently he had never been corrected by anyone in his life). In many of these people, the reactions were as if they were challenging me, or anyone else who may have corrected them, almost defiantly for having mentioned the problem. But, in our world, our clients, who are attorneys, are paid to find problems. Giving them free problems to complain about is not part of the Magnus way. So, we spend considerable time debriefing after research and doing training to work out the kinks to minimize the problems. That said, when something inevitably happens, the best employees take ownership of the problem. They fix it, preferably before the client notices it, and they apologize for their mistake or the problem. Taking ownership changes the equation and makes it impossible for the employee to fear reprisals. Apologizing shows an understanding of their role in the situation. We lost a long time employee who could never get himself to the place of understanding that he was the cause of a major problem that cost Magnus a long time client. Had he taken ownership, and pitched in to help fix it, he would probably still be with us, as perhaps would be the client. Being afraid of admitting mistakes is dangerous in the workplace.

When did apologies cease to exist?  And, by “apology,” I don’t mean saying “Sorry” instead of “Excuse me” when bumping into someone in the grocery store.  When referring to apologies, I mean owning up to one’s mistake, taking positive steps to ensure it is corrected, and being proactive in ensuring the mistake will never happen again.  Everyone makes mistakes; mistakes are a part of our existence as human beings.  However, in many subcultures, it has become increasingly common for everyone, beginning in childhood, to be considered a “winner” whose mistakes are benignly overlooked for fear of harming  self esteem.  Not everyone is, in reality, a winner.  In fact, many people are on the other end of the win-lose spectrum in almost everything they do.  When someone with a fragile self concept comes to work at Magnus, after years of being told he/she is perfect and has never made a mistake, it is a shock to his/her existence to be counseled by David or me when they make mistakes.  In the case David mentions about one of our former employees, this young man led such a pampered and coddled existence that it is doubtful anyone ever told him he had done something wrong.  He made numerous mistakes, including several costly ones, and when these mistakes were brought to his attention, he repeatedly batted his eyes (perhaps, in an attempt to avoid tears) and his mouth gaped with incredulity, as if to say, “Mistake?  Me?  Never; I don’t make mistakes!”  Once he overcame the shock of having an imperfection exposed, he slowly worked through what happened, but it was a painful process for all of us.  Mistakes happen, people. Deal with it.

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