27 September 2023

Rising to the challenge of making a mistake

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Travis Bradberry says few people go through their working lives without making mistakes — but often it is how you react to them that decides how serious the fallout will be.

Most of us have experienced that sickening moment when you realise you’ve made a serious mistake.

Perhaps it was a typo that threw off a financial forecast, or maybe you forgot to reserve a venue for an important meeting that’s scheduled for the following day.

The details are different for everybody, but at some point we’ve all felt that rising tide of dread and panic.

Mistakes and pressure are inevitable; the secret to getting past them is to stay calm.

Harvard Business School research shows that most of us go about staying calm the wrong way.

People who welcome the challenge of a crisis — so much so that overcoming the challenge excites them — perform far better than those who try to force themselves to be calm.

Author of the Harvard study, Alison Wood Brooks says people have a very strong intuition that trying to calm down is the best way to cope with their anxiety, but that can be difficult and ineffective.

“When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well,” Professor Brooks says.

Staying composed, focused, and effective under pressure are all about your mentality.

People who successfully manage crises are able to channel their emotions into producing the behaviour they want.

In other words, they turn their anxiety into energy and excitement.

Yes, making a big mistake is embarrassing. You might get yelled at by your boss, and the mistake might even show up on your next performance appraisal.

However it’s not likely to result in you getting fired, losing your house, living out of your car, or in any of the other catastrophic thoughts that fuel anxiety.

If you struggle with putting things into perspective, just ask yourself two simple questions.

What’s the worst thing that could happen as a result of this? Will this matter in five years?

You’ll probably realise you’re panicking due to the anticipation of public embarrassment more than anything else.

Once you get over that, you can build confidence by picking up the pieces and making things better.

To help put things in perspective, think about situations that were worse than yours were.

More than likely, your colleagues who have made serious mistakes are still there and doing just fine.

Those legendary mistakes usually have few long-term effects on otherwise good employees.

Next, you need to recognise that people are less focused on you than you think they are.

Your boss, and everyone else, will spend far less time worrying about you than they will about trying to improve a difficult situation, which is what you should be focusing on in the first place.

You need to realise that they won’t have much time to think about you until after the dust has settled, and by that time, you’ll have become part of the solution.

Nothing helps you maintain the right frame of mind in a crisis like logical thinking. Once you’ve forestalled the panic, it’s time to ask yourself some important questions.

What exactly happened? What are the possible repercussions? Is there still time to avoid those repercussions? If so, how? Who needs to be involved?

If it’s too late to head off the repercussions, what can be done to mitigate the damage?

Don’t let your mind run off with ridiculous self-accusations.

Once you’ve figured out the facts and screwed your head on straight, it’s time to own up to the situation.

Putting off the hard work of cleaning up the mess just gives your sense of dread more power.

Pouring your energy into making things better is both empowering and a wonderful distraction from any anxiety that might surface.

Remember, getting excited by the challenge of rising from the ashes will improve your performance dramatically.

Nobody’s perfect. Even the most successful people make serious mistakes.

Henry Ford’s first car company failed after just 18 months; Oprah Winfrey was deemed “unfit for television” in an early reporting job, and Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star for his lack of creativity.

Beating yourself up might be a tempting option, but it never accomplishes anything, and it certainly doesn’t make you any calmer.

Instead, keep your energy focused on the future and the things you can change.

Nobody likes making mistakes, but no matter how big the mistake is, succumbing to panic isn’t going to help.

Giving in to catastrophic thinking undermines your ability to make good decisions and to move forward effectively.

Instead, use these strategies to stay calm so you can assess the situation, develop a plan, be accountable, and get busy making things right so you can move on.

What’s the worst crisis you’ve ever dealt with at work?

* Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the co-founder of TalentSmart. His books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. He can be contacted at TalentSmart.com.

This article first appeared on the TalentSmart website.

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