×

Mel Graykin: Own that mistake – and have a plan to fix it



For the Monitor
Wednesday, June 14, 2017

None of us is perfect. We cannot know the future, so we make mistakes and commit errors of judgment. We are not in absolute command of ourselves at all times. Our emotions and human biases affect our decisions, cloud our reason, and goad us into saying or doing things that we later wish we hadn’t. No matter how humble or exalted our position in life, sooner or later we’re going to screw up.

I’ll grant you, some mistakes are so breathtakingly stupid, so criminally irresponsible and cause such terrible damage, that the person who commits them deserves to be judged and judged harshly. There is a difference between human weakness and just not giving a damn. But in the vast majority of cases, the person was doing their best and made a bad call, or got blindsided by something unexpected.

Now, it’s easy in retrospect to say the person should have seen it. The clues were all there. They ought to have known better. But again, we are human, flawed and fallible. So judging a person by their mistakes seems to me unreasonable. Instead, we should judge them by what they do when their mistake is pointed out to them.

Do they deny it? Do they argue about it? Do they refuse to take responsibility for it? Do they immediately go on the attack and list all the failures of their accuser?

This, not the mistake, is evidence of weak character.

We all tend to get defensive when we are criticized. We tend to make excuses for ourselves. How the criticism was delivered can have a big effect. If we feel that our jobs, our reputations, our self-respect are being threatened, we are going to react accordingly. Living in a work or home environment with a zero tolerance for error is not healthy. It is unreasonable to expect perfection (see paragraph one). This, by the way, applies to you, too. Cut yourself some slack.

There is a productive, sensible way to handle criticism. First of all, listen to it. Carefully and honestly. Is the criticism valid? Did you screw up? Then admit it and apologize. Even if there were extenuating circumstances, apologize anyway. Once you’ve admitted the mistake and apologized for it, then you and the person who pointed it out can go over what happened, talk about why you did what you did and figure out what to do about it. Maybe restitution is in order. Maybe it’s just a lesson learned and life goes on.

The point is, it’s not about the mistake; it’s about what happens afterward.

Often people in positions of authority think it’s better to seem incapable of error. People hold leaders to a higher standard than ordinary folks. So if the CEO or the Senator or the POTUS commits a blunder, they try to bury it, deny it or put the spin doctors to work. Bad choice. Understandable, though, given the unreasonable gleefulness with which the media seizes upon mistakes made by important people. Both sides need a healthy dose of maturity.

If anything, anyone running a department, a company or a country needs to be particularly honest and up front. Yeah, that wasn’t such a good idea. Yeah, mistakes were made. I take full responsibility. Here’s what I’m going to do to correct the situation, and here’s what I’m going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

I’d trust that person a heck of a lot more than the one who tries, in political parlance, to “manage” the situation so it doesn’t go public, or if it does, they don’t get blamed.

Alas, I know this is far too much to expect, especially in today’s modern Wonderland of alternate realities. But we can still strive for it in our personal relations. We can avoid making it a game of “Gotcha!” when someone messes up. And we can admit it when we oops, apologize and see what can be done to remedy the situation.

Because, after all, we’re only human.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)