Handling Mistakes: Creating a Culture of Courage

03/08/2022 | Roger and Susie Engelau

“Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts”. Nikki Giovanni, American Poet, Writer, and Activist

 You’re the boss and you’ve made a mistake—

    •   You misspoke
    •   You quoted a statistic incorrectly
    •   You told someone how to fix a problem, it was the wrong solution, and it cost the company a lot of money

Inspire Results Business Coaching

What you do in the next second, how you recover from your error, will set the example for how everyone else in your company will handle their errors.

Handling mistakes

Will you handle it with courage? Or do you have a fear of failure?  A fear of failure causes you to—

  •   Sweep it under the rug and never mention it
  •   Drag someone else into it so all the blame isn’t on you
  •   Get angry


Your fear of failure is contagious. If you’re worried about looking like a fool, everyone who works in your company is too. If you brush your mistake under a rug, that tells everyone that that’s how we handle our mistakes around here. If you blame someone or make excuses, you are modeling how everyone else in the business should handle their lapses and errors.

Handling mistakes actually presents you with a great opportunity to set the example. If you handle it with courage, if you recover with honesty, an apology if necessary, and an emphasis on solution, you’ll contribute to the Culture of Courage we’ve been blogging about.

In our last article we talked about Creating a “Courage Contract” with your team. A Courage Contract is a list of 2 – 5 statements about how we deal with mistakes around here. It’s a list of behaviors, beliefs, and encouraging sayings that leaders and employees agree to. An upfront contract with your employees may contain statements like “mistakes are good because we learn from them.”

But how you react in the moment, the moment you discover you’ve made the mistake, sends the ultimate message to everyone in the company about how we deal with mistakes in this company.

If you have a process for handling mistakes in the moment, it takes the power away from the fear of failure.

We researched and compiled the best practices for handling mistakes from a dozen leaders and psychologists to create a 6-step In-the-Moment Mistake Recovery Process.

In-the-Moment Mistake Recovery Process
  1. OWN IT
    •   Admit it immediately
    •   Say it aloud
    •   Don’t blame; don’t bring anyone else’s name up
  2. PAUSE
    •   Leave a few seconds of dead airtime as you reflect
    •   Shows your willingness to accept and consider
  3. APOLOGIZE (Maybe)
    •   Not necessary if you it’s an honest and small error and hasn’t caused harm to anyone
    •   Briefly if it’s a medium error and has caused confusion, loss of time
    •   Profusely it it’s a big lapse in judgment or a grave omission
    •   Determine the nature or cause of the error
    •   Give your rationale in the moment – briefly!
    •   Listen, talk it out, engage in analysis if necessary
    •   Let the other person have the final say
  5. FIX (If necessary) or ADJUST (if necessary)
    •   Create a game plan
    •   Agree on solutions
  6. MOVE ON
    •   Don’t dwell on it
    •   Incorporate the learning


Still dwelling? Something deeper may be going on. Remind yourself that there are no mistakes, only lessons. Talk to someone: a trusted friend, coach, mentor, or therapist.

We’ve all got headtrash, tapes playing in our heads from well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) parents and teachers. Adopt these “healthy framing principles” for handling mistakes:

  •   You are not your mistake
  •   Allow yourself some time to feel bad, but not too long
  •   Be kind to yourself
  •   View it as a learning opportunity


Your culture and process for handling mistakes is critical your customer service, team synergy, and employee engagement.