I have never met a person who hasn’t made a mistake.  When I started in public safety I made my fair share of mistakes. Some of the mistakes could be considered serious, others minor, and others humorous.  Starting my career as a teenager, I reacted to my mistakes as a typical teenager would, by that I mean, repetitively thinking about the error, overreacting to the mistake, and thinking it was the end of the “world”, anxiety and guilt.  Then as time progressed, I realized that making mistakes and receiving discipline was part of learning.

To be fair, I never actually had anything in my personnel file more serious than a memo.  I was fortunate to be raised in my public safety career in an atmosphere where the carrot is better than the stick.  A philosophy that I used in most all of the situations I encountered in my first 12 years of supervision.  I always felt that a discussion would correct most errors and those whose authority I was under agreed.

With the exception of life-and-death errors or hostile work-type situations, focusing on the heart of the problem can usually get better results than the mistakes we see.  That doesn’t mean that I didn’t work with people who had to have their futures freed up before they were ready.  Always trying to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the organization is a skill.  The organization needs leaders to believe in the mission, vision, and goals statements.  In 1997, Robert Barrett used the well-known Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and refined it from five levels to seven for organizational consciousness:

✔ Level 1/Viability: Survival and financial stability
✔ Level 2/Relationships: customer, client, vendor, and partner satisfaction
✔ Level 3/Performance: results, productivity and efficiency
✔ Level 4/Evolution: continuous learning, innovation, empowerment
✔ Level 5/Alignment: integrity, trust, honesty, transparency
✔ Level 6/Collaboration: cultivating communities, mentoring/coaching; and
✔ Level 7/Contribution: Being of service, social responsibility

In this model, employee’s needs matter, but the organization must remain focused on what works for them, not individually.  When both work in harmony all will prosper.  Despite the best efforts, mistakes are made.  You may have heard stories about employees who made significant mistakes and then received a promotion. Certainly, the perception is there, but how factual it is across the board is unknown.  In a CBS news report (“Promotions after Mistakes for CIA Agents”) there are multiple examples of misconduct or serious errors.  The examples detail how those who made mistakes are either not disciplined, retire and return as contract workers, or promoted.  What we don’t always know for many of those promoted is what kind of work goes on after the mistake.

Take for example the young Marine corporal, with his wife expecting their first child in a very difficult pregnancy, the corporal allowed another couple to move into their on-base housing.  The couple paid the young Marine for food, which during the investigation appeared to be payment for housing, a significant violation (accepting money for “rent” when the housing is provided by the government).  The young corporal received a Non-Judicial punishment (NJP).  A NJP is used to punish wrongdoing that could have detrimental effects on a military unit’s performance and allows commanders to administratively discipline without a court-martial.

The NJP for many is a career killer.  To overcome the effects of an NJP, the receiver must prove him or herself as worthy.  For this example, the young Marine, after a brief period of anger, choose to prove himself worthy.  He excelled at his job, and his physical conditioning, and took on aggressive “billets”.

A military billet is an extra position or field of occupation.  The Marine took on these leadership roles at a variety of levels.  During promotions the NJP always lurked, threatening to halt his career, but the positive efforts always shined through, leading to promotions steadily until he reached the rank of Gunnery Sergeant after 11 years.  This career Marine has eight years to go in his military career and is close to promotion to the next level of Master Sergeant.

We’ve heard about officers getting pulled over for driving under the influence.  PSAP personnel use inappropriate language and words in front of subordinates.  Emergency dispatchers are disciplined for delays in dispatch.  Unless the discipline results in termination, moving past it, can be key to a highly successful career.  Recognizing the mistake and accepting responsibility is the first step toward a speedy rebound.  The muse (“Promotions after Mistakes for CIA Agents”) provides a great outline to respond to mistakes, regardless of the career.

Step one:

Feel Awful.  Allow yourself to feel awful about it, but not too long.  Sometimes if we don’t push through it, emotions can get stuck and that will allow us to not get past it.

Step two:

Maintain perspective.  As previously stated, unless the mistake results in termination, make sure your response is proportional to whatever blunder you made.

Step three:

Confront the worst-case scenario, make peace with it, and move on.  In the case of the young Marine, he struggled with making peace with the worst-case scenario, which to him was court martial or not being allowed to reenlist.  He “what-if”d himself into an ulcer but pushed past his fear to work at proving his worth.

Step four:

Apologize.  I once blew up at an employee who was trying her hardest to get her supervisor in hot water.  Blew up – yelled at her in a meeting and banged my hands on the table in frustration.  Very unprofessional, and the good feeling I had in releasing that frustration lasted all of one hour.  When I apologized to her for my actions, it was sincere.  I offered no excuses and I didn’t come back around and blame her for her actions.  I took it and moved on.  Some of my employees said I should have never apologized because she deserved it, but for me, it was out of character and demeaning to her.

Step five:

Evaluate what you will do differently the next time you are faced with a similar situation. If it was a delay in dispatch, how are you going to make sure that doesn’t occur again?  What factors were in play that caused your actions?  Really look deeply into the event for the purposes of analyzing how it can be prevented.

Step six

Take care of you.  WHAT? You may ask.  So you thought this was about recovering from disciplinary actions?  It is.  Most Americans are sleep deprived, which impairs their ability to concentrate, reason, problem-solve, and stay attentive. There are some studies indicating that sleep deprivation is as bad as working under the influence of alcohol (or drugs).  Treat yourself like the professional you are.  Sleep, train, work, proper fuel, and repeat.

Step seven:

– Earn trust. Earn back the trust lost through your actions, not just your words.  Using my example, I apologized verbally, this would have been empty, or have no meaning,  if I continued to blow up at my staff (which I didn’t).  For the Marine, he took responsibility, apologized, and promised to prove himself, then worked to deliver greatness in everything he did.  One mistake, even big ones, does not have to derail your career, or your life for that matter.

One last example:

Have you ever heard of Akio Mortia? He was an ambitious man born in Japan in 1921. He started off selling rice cookers that he had invented.  Fewer than 100 units were sold because it burned more rice than it cooked. He moved away from that mistake and kept pushing himself to improve and expand.

He partnered with Ibuka Masaru in 1946 and together they formed a Telecommunications Engineering corporation which later changed its name to SONY in 1958.  Although sources are scattered, it is said that at his death in 1999, his net worth was $1.04 billion.  He kept working and eventually his little gadget company Sony—became a household name.

How you respond after an error, as much of a catchphrase as this is, can set the course of your life.  What will that look like for you?