In our personal lives, the ramifications of making mistakes might involve deep humiliation or embarrassment at worst. Who, after all, wants their loved ones or friends to know how much they messed up? Luckily the fallout from those mistakes is usually short-lived because the situation was just that—personal. Our loved ones and friends are much more willing to forgive those times when things go wrong because of mistakes (if we’re lucky!).
But what about when things go wrong on the job as a result of someone making a mistake? Some mistakes in the workplace may indeed be small and embarrassing and may take little recovery time. Some mistakes, however, can be much more serious and lead to huge ramifications that aren’t so easily fixed.
This is especially true in the life sciences and in the lab, complex work environments where the potential for human error can be great. What if, for instance, a mistake involves a drug for human consumption? Suddenly, the mistake becomes much more serious because other people could be affected in tangible ways. These are the kinds of mistakes that are the most dangerous—and it’s why both managers and workers need to have an intelligent way of approaching workplace mistakes in order to lessen the pain all around.
First and foremost, there must be the recognition that the scientific world is indeed complex and rife with opportunities for human workers to make human mistakes. Both managers and workers need to recognize this phenomenon to begin with, because if everyone thinks they are invincible on the job, the possibilities for making critical mistakes can be high.
If, however, a mistake has been made, it is critical to own up to it. As humans, we naturally push against this. We may want to blame circumstances or other people. We may feel the need to get defensive. But these reactions only mask the truth, which is the fact that a mistake has been made. When we own up to a mistake right away, it lessens the time needed to fix it. It can also convince coworkers of your competence, because competent people make mistakes all the time—but they’re also capable of making things right.
Next, don’t underestimate the power of a sincere apology. As humans we tend to see apologies in the workplace as a sign of weakness. But especially for those directly affected by a mistake, an apology can actually lessen the blow and diffuse the situation as well as prove that you’re the kind of employee who cares about making a bad situation better. Indeed, you might find out in the future that when you apologize on the job for a genuine mistake, the outcome may not be as bad as you thought it was going to be.
Of course, the way management handles mistakes will also weigh heavily on the outcome if a serious mistake has been made. The best managers will always recognize that their employees are human and that mistakes are inevitable. They will want to foster an environment where initial reaction to a mistake is not anger but almost a kind of gratitude if an employee is willing to own up to it. Ultimately this approach best utilizes everyone’s time in the case of a mistake, as the fix can be put in motion quickly and everyone can move on.
Some mistakes, as I said earlier, can be very serious. Many will not be easily fixed. Some may be indicative of a larger workplace problem that extends beyond the individual employee making the mistake. But these first few fundamental steps to approaching a mistake will make almost any situation better from the start—and will assure everyone in the workplace that the organization is capable of dealing with any kind of problem effectively.
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