As we encourage increased transparency at every level throughout organizations, we don’t really seem to engage the topic of how to take your lumps or deal with falling short of the mark.  There does seem to be a discussion of the need for safety and the absence of “vicious punishment for failure,” in fact Christopher Argyris cites this kind of organizational tradition as one of the greatest impediments to true learning in organizations.  But, how do we deal with the situation of having fallen short of the mark without losing face—let alone our jobs?

The question of context is relevant:  whether we are being confronted by a hostile individual with an agenda we perceive to be out of alignment with our long term health or survival, for instance.  And, yet, even in such a case, there is a way to cope:

  • Stand your ground while acknowledging your error.
  • Lower your chin, drop your shoulders, sit up straight and monitor your tone of voice—literally.
  • Admit the fault.
  • Express regret.
  • Communicate a plan for preventing this problem from occurring in the future.
  • Act on the plan.
  • Ask for help if you feel you’re heading in the same direction again.

This assumes, of course, that you agree there was an error and you are not a repeat offender with a record of recidivism.

Taking all failures as learning opportunities (all experiences as learning opportunities, for that matter) and enlisting others and the world of learning in your improved competency and enriched potential is the best attitude you can adopt.

But, what if your act has harmed others, as is the case more often than we admit?  You can apologize (see bulleted list above), but only if you and they know you mean it.  A false apology for harm done (for example, engendering a death march on a project, undercutting a colleague, or moonlighting on the job) has an odor that, though indescribable, is recognizable by most people.  Just don’t do it.  That said, if you can’t apologize because, for instance, you don’t feel your apology will be believed, you can still create a plan to prevent yourself from making the same mistakes in the future.

You may need support in your self-improvement plan, and you can find this through a leadership coach, a therapist, a cleric, or other trusted friend or confident.  The point is to develop the skill necessary to get better and faster at double-loop learning, which is the most powerful kind of learning.

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