When leaders get it wrong: Three steps for coping with mistakes in business

Mistakes are a part of life and of running a business.  Despite processes and strategies, it is important to remember that there will always be a risk of human error. When the inevitable happens, what really counts is not the mistake itself but the way in which the subsequent fall out is dealt with.

Good leaders resist the urge to assign blame when things go wrong, as it’s very rare that a mistake can be attributed wholly to the slip-up of an individual. The vast majority of errors can come as a result of a series of small mistakes, or the breakdown of procedures and communication.

See below for our three-step guide on how to deal with mistakes:

  •   Own your mistakes

It’s not the mistake that matters it’s the covering up of it that will cost you dearly. Politicians often learn this the hard way – think Chris Huhne and speeding points fiasco. Whether it is a mistake that you have made personally or a wider mistake within your organisation it is important to admit the error as fast as possible. Many leaders waste time and energy by either trying to brush the mistake under the carpet or in attempting to lay the blame at someone else’s door. Dealing with errors promptly helps to reassure both customers and the internal team that the management are fully engaged in the running of the business. It also works to demonstrate that the senior team are empowered to put things right.

  • Analyse the cause of the error

Looking back at what happened and why often starts out as practical exercise however, this can quickly turn into a witch-hunt as people become defensive about being made responsible for the blunder. Making a conscious effort to take a truly constructive look back at what happened and building a clear understanding of what went wrong, can help to reassure staff that they work in a fair and open environment with a focus on progression as opposed to recrimination.

  • Follow through with changes

Once you have got to the heart of the problem and ascertained the series of events that caused it – take immediate steps to prevent a repeat performance. If there were specific individuals involved who failed to uphold their responsibilities, administer training or coaching to help equip them with both the skills and confidence to move on in a positive way. Find a way to share what you’ve learned with the wider team. Naturally, avoid specific details and finger-pointing but take the opportunity to communicate a positive message to the rest of your organisation.


When working with NACCO, I released a product to market without fully understanding the implications on the distribution department. It was a decision I questioned and had to hold my hands up and admit I was wrong. Having a network of people around you whose opinion you respect – whether they are employees, customers or even competitors – is crucial, as is listening to the opinions of that network.