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4 Things to Focus On After Making a Mistake at Work

April 21, 2017, 12:00 AM UTC
Patrick Strattner/Getty Images/fStop

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you bounce back after making a major mistake?” is written by Nat Greene, co-founder and current CEO of Stroud International, and author of Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem-Solvers.

I’ve seen a few big business setbacks in my time, both in my consulting practice and within the organizations that we help. Moving forward from these painful failures is an immense challenge.

Often the effort to find out what went wrong is too hasty. As a result, businesses fail to understand the root cause for their setback—and correct course accordingly.

Here are four key strategies to ensure you’ve correctly identified why you’ve had a setback at work:

Don’t copy everyone else

One of the common first responses to a major setback is to look for deviations from best practices, or to otherwise look to competitors for advice. If your company has suffered a setback and someone else in the industry hasn’t, it can be tempting to believe that acting more like them will lead you to victory. But your business is often very different from your competitors’, and copying them is far from the perfect approach. Plus even if you could, copying is a path to mediocrity at best, and leaves your business vulnerable to your competitors’ weak spots.

Drop the guessing game

After the panic of a setback has eased, business leaders will frequently call meetings to understand what went wrong. Everyone will share their understanding of the situation. But such an exercise is often a collection of guesses about what the root cause might have been. When people bring their own biases and assumptions into the group’s understanding of the setback, the approach can lead you astray. Drop these quick postmortem meetings—they’re useless.

Define what’s under your control

Most business setbacks are driven by a combination of factors, both in and out of your business’s control. When people try to come up with the causes of their business’s misfortunes, the guessing approach often causes them to focus on external events. This is natural: Since we think of ourselves as competent and well-intentioned, we tend to blame external sources for our problems.

But to be able to bounce back from a setback—even if it’s somewhat influenced by external causes—you need to focus on finding those internal levers you can change. This approach takes you out the helpless passenger role and puts you in the driver’s seat.

Figure out how you got there

The assumptions and narratives that team members have about the setback’s root cause need to be rigorously challenged. Think of yourself as a detective: To solve the problems that led to the setback, you must first find the culprit.

My own business had a setback due in large part to being too highly concentrated on a few clients and industries—a common issue for many service firms. When these industries faltered, many businesses cut their external help budgets first in order to reduce spending.

I couldn’t just stop there; I had to rigorously understand what got my business to that concentrated position in the first place. Otherwise, the problem would return. What incentives drove my team to concentrate on a few clients and industries? What aspect of the culture and management structures allowed this to persist? Going through this process vastly improved my ability to credibly communicate the causes and recovery plan to the rest of the company.

The next time you have to communicate what went wrong at work, make sure you understand the root cause behind it. Otherwise, you’re likely to have a painful recovery.