It is as inevitable as night follows day, spring follows winter and England bore you at rugby that at some point in your career you’ll screw up. Most of us will push ourselves, try different things, take on new and different challenges and the result of that is that at some point something important will go wrong. And that, is absolutely ok.
Of course, it doesn’t feel it at the time and most of us will have experienced the physiological reaction as well as the emotional rollercoaster that comes with realising that you’ve done something wrong – or not done something at all! The large part of my career is littered with “oh sh*t” moments and I know from talking to others that I’m not alone. As, I say it is just the way that it is.
Whilst we might not have a choice about whether things go wrong or not, how we react when they do is the thing that can set us apart. And that starts with owning it and taking responsibility. It is amazing how reassuring and even disarming it is when someone says, “yep, I know that’s not right and that’s down to me”. We can probably all think about a situation when the opposite has occurred and someone has started to explain exactly why it isn’t their fault, “the thing is…”. And of course the more senior you get, the less opportunity there is to deflect responsibility.
Next comes a willingness to make things better or take steps to rectify the issue. Sometimes you won’t know how to sort it out and that’s ok too. A simple, “what can I do to help make this better?”. And whilst it might be seen as being neanderthal by some, that might mean pulling an extra shift, staying late, putting other stuff on hold. Showing you’re willing to take the pain and consequences goes a long way to showing your colleagues and your boss that you really mean what you say.
And finally there’s the value of showing that you want to learn and reflect on why things went wrong and how you could handle the situation differently in the future. To be honest, the right time for that isn’t in the heat of the moment, but a few days afterwards when the dust has settled. Taking a moment for self reflection and seeking feedback from others, “What would I do differently next time?”
As the events of the last couple of days of Cummingsate have shown us, it doesn’t matter how clever, how senior, how powerful one becomes, we are all capable of getting stuff wrong. Watching the press conference, and putting aside for one moment the reason for it, I had some personal sympathy as journalist after journalist lined up to ask him ostensibly the same question, picking over the details again and again.
The sympathy came because, in my own small way, I was also recovering from getting something pretty badly wrong and figuring out how to set best to articulate it in writing. To be clear, this is in no way a commentary on the Dominic Cummings situation – I’ll leave that to those that are better qualified – more a note to self and maybe to others.
- You have to take it on the chin – The first and most important thing about getting things wrong is that you have to own it. The immediate desire is to try to explain and rationalise and whilst that is absolutely critical too (see below), you have to start from a position of accepting your sub optimal outcome.
- Differentiate between the what and the who – It is very easy to start an inner self narrative, “I screwed up because I’m useless” or “I’m just no good at these things”. At the moment you’re dealing with a thing – whether that is a conversation, a piece of work, an event doesn’t really matter. It is too easy to generically attribute blame to some fundamental personality fault and it doesn’t help you learn.
- Try not to over steer – Trying to get perspective quickly is important and there are people around you that can help – but you have to choose wisely. Some will lead you not to follow numbers 1 and 2 above. They’ll tell you that you’re wonderful and the other person/people are idiots or they’ll tell you you’re an idiot and they could have done it so much better – “I’m not sure I would have handled it like that”. Helpful.
- Get analytical with it – In order to feel better, to learn and to improve you need to start getting analytical. What exactly went wrong? What was the timeline? If you could go back and do-over, which bit would you change, how and why? What would the impact of that amendment been to the end result? How do you know? Contrary to popular practice and belief, this isn’t best done with cold sweats at 4am, but in the light of day with a steady mind.
- Move on – Once you’ve been through this process, you need to let it go. Take the learning, remember the feelings and emotions, but contextualise them as a power to take you forward, not to take you back. “I don’t want to ever feel like that again, so to avoid that I’m going to do xx”. Of course others will risk drag you back, depending on the context, but that takes you back to number 1. Own it, acknowledge it, learn from it, move on from it.
Not a bad process to follow if one of your team or colleague gets something wrong either. You know, it happens to us all. Right?