Being Logical and Kind When a Mistake is Made

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In this post, I'm going to share some reflections from one of my workplaces, some things that occurred last week. I'm going to be vague, so forgive me for that. It feels right to be less specific in this case, or at least that's the cautious (and maybe respectful) thing to do.

When wearing one of my different “hats” with one of the organizations I work with, something went wrong. It wasn't something I did (or I would own up to that in specific ways). But the mistake affected me and the work I was doing.

When a preventable process problem occurs, the engineer in me finds it relatively easy to be logical and think through “what happened?” instead of “who messed up?” A few deep calming breaths help, as well.


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The first step was “containment.” Before investigation and discussion and root cause analysis could be done, the immediate and proverbial “fire” had to be put out. The customer needed to be made right in the short term and we had to get back on track. And we did.

Some colleagues started investigating what happened, while I finished the immediate work.

Earlier that morning, I was talking with a future podcast guest on “My Favorite Mistake.” This guest is a leadership coach and she works with many Silicon Valley startup founders, CEOs, and venture capitalists. In Silicon Valley, they talk about “fail fast and fail often.”

This leadership coach said people TALK about the idea, but they struggle as individuals when mistakes are made. People blame themselves and beat themselves up. This can be hard to handle on a personal level and she tries to help people get through that.

I was bragging a bit about this organization I work with and how the culture there is one that doesn't blame individuals for systemic problems. This organization, and their leaders, ask “what happened?” instead of “who messed up?” when something goes wrong. This is true of two of the organizations I work with and that's part of my affinity for them.

When this error occurred, it was a chance for me to practice what I preach. It was a time to not jump to conclusions — was this a process problem or was it a technology problem? Was it due to somebody's inadvertent action or was it a glitch or a bug? It was time to be logical and calm.

But then I am reminded of my friend Karyn Ross and her contagious spirit of being kind, sharing kindness, and acting kindly. She founded the Love & Kindness Project Foundation and she really is an incredibly kind person. As she put it the other day during a call, she “works at it every day.” :-)

When somebody makes an inadvertent error, they already feel bad enough. As a leader (or a colleague), it's good to not pile on, to not yell.

Yelling doesn't help. That reaction likely doesn't prevent future errors. I've seen enough yelling in workplaces to know it doesn't help.

But, being kind requires more effort.



I share the tweet from Karyn there because I felt like, in the moment, that she was standing on my shoulder reminding me to be kind. I shared the story with her, which led to the tweet.

I was worried that I would, in the moment, get emotional and say the wrong thing or say something the wrong way. It was an opportunity for me to coach myself.

I did my best to go out of my way to be kind, not just logical. My role and intent was to not blame… but I think being kind requires more than “not blaming.”

When it was time to have a meeting to discuss what had happened and what to do about it, the person I was talking to, live via Zoom, had created a few holes in their process, leading to the mistake. They expressed sincere regret as they understood now, in hindsight, how they had created the risk for this problem to occur. They said, not surprisingly, in a very apologetic way:

“I feel really bad about it.”

My reply was something like.

“It's OK. I know it was inadvertent… it's OK.”

Now some might think, “But doesn't that just give permission for them to make future mistakes?”

No. I don't think so. For one, they feel bad already. Two, they don't want to make the same error.

The best outcome, going back to being an engineer, is working together to CHANGE the process so the error cannot occur again. THAT is what prevents future errors.

I think it's that combination of logic and kindness that makes the difference.

In this situation, there was no real harm. The process problem caused a little confusion for some and inconvenience for others. But, we got back on track. And the thing we were doing was a success. It turned out OK.

This wasn't like a healthcare problem, where somebody might die. It would be more of a challenge to remain calm and kind in that kind of scenario.

I'm not perfect, but I think I handled the situation well. My focus was dual:

  1. Make sure we figured out what happened (we did) and put preventive countermeasures in place (we have)
  2. Make sure the person who was involved in the error would be OK and not be upset about it all weekend

Care for the process and care for the person. I think that's possible. I tried to do both.

Again, I'm not perfect, but I have been very intentional about tamping down the blame reflex… to think and breathe before I jump to conclusions and speak.

Here are some previous blog posts about learning not to blame… or trying to.

Thanks for reading…

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

4 Comments
  1. Joe Fortin says

    Hi Mark! As a supply chain student and athlete, mistakes are something that have happened to me quite a lot. And like you said, they are going to effect my individual self and those around me. After reading your blog post I took a lot from it. I agreed with you right off the bat when you said to just take a few breaths and stay calm. When it comes to explaining yourself being logical and kind goes a long way. I like how you emphasized the importance on working to change a mistake so you can prevent it in the future rather than just being sorry about it and hoping no one gets too hurt from it. Most importantly, being kind and not blaming a specific person or thing can also help you in a situation where you make a mistake. It is nice to know that professionals don’t look down on people always when they make mistakes. I hope one day I can work in an environment where they help me to grow and learn from my mistakes to keep them from happening in the future. Thank you for this post- I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to more content from you!

    1. Mark Graban says

      Joe – Thanks for reading and commenting. One other thing I try to remember is to be kind to myself when I make a mistake. I can be harder on myself than I am on others.

      Being in a workplace that’s kind and understanding about mistakes — a company that doesn’t blame individuals for systemic problems — is still sort of rare. I hope you can find that workplace… or help create one!

  2. Jason Jeronimo says

    Hey Mark,
    I love this post considering the number of times I get angry at someone for making a mistake. What I try to do, is put myself in their shoes, how would I feel if made that mistake? I’ve personally experienced getting yelled at and not learning from it, it’s hard to learn when you have that pressure. It’s more efficient to be kind to someone, I believe it would make them even more guilty considering how well you reacted to their mistake. I believe acting kind for confronting a person about a mistake will be more efficient than yelling at them in the long-term. Thanks for the post!

    1. Mark Graban says

      Well stated, Jason.

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