Under pressure: 5 steps to respond to mistakes in a way that grows your leadership

On the 10th of May last year, Jordanian born Natasha Tynes took a Washington DC metro train to get to work. On the train she spotted a metro worker, a black American women, eating her breakfast, which was against the transit authority (WMATA) rules. Natasha then posted the comment below on Twitter along with a photo of the woman¹.

“When you’re on your morning commute & see @wmata employee in UNIFORM eating on the train. I thought we were not allowed to eat on the train. This is unacceptable. Hope @wmata responds.”

Natasha’s tweet, viewed as racist and discriminatory, was deleted (by her) about 50 minutes later after she arrived at work. She apologised profusely for it. What followed was a social media backlash that dismantled her life including: the cancellation of her pending book by her publisher; receiving multiple death threats; being hospitalised from a nervous breakdown; and then fleeing to Jordan to the safety of her extended family.

Natasha’s error of judgment was made in the time it took her to type the tweet. About 30 seconds. 30 seconds was all it took for her life as she knew it, to be taken away from her. Our blame/shame social media ‘mob’ culture is not the point though.

No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. 

No one is all good or all bad. We’re born with every possible trait within us. Our character (who we are) is more than one action or behaviour.

We’re under the pump and under pressure with everything that COVID has thrown us. Fatigue, stress, and anxiety are on the rise. Many people feel like they’re ‘running on empty’ managing layer upon layer of change. Consequently, we can’t expect people’s judgement to be at their best.

People around us will make mistakes. So will we. Decision fatigue is real.

Why do we fear making mistakes?

We fear the judgement of others. That someone’s perception of us is less than what we want it to be. We learn at an early age that ‘being good’ and ‘getting it right’ will be rewarded. Being validated creates safety and belonging which are core needs we all have.

Everyone has strengths and stretches

We all have progress to make. Being more senior doesn’t necessarily make you more self-aware, emotionally mature, or right about everything (just ask those around you). It does, however, give you responsibility. How you handle your mistakes and those of others around you creates the space for others to grow and develop.

Creativity, innovation are dependent on learning through failure and mistakes

A ‘cover your bum’ culture breeds people playing it safe, keeping quiet, and staying within a silo. It’s the opposite of what it takes to succeed: learning through mistakes and failure.

Trouble is though, our deadlines for delivery and pace of change don’t create much room for error.

What’s the lens you view mistakes through?

Is your first reaction to see a mistake through a lens of judgement, or learning, or both? How you react and respond to mistakes, especially in these crazy uncertain times, reveals your mindset as a leader, your level of care for people as well as the quality of relationships you have with them.

“We need to rethink how we’re taking care of ourselves, how we’re taking care of each other. If you can’t feel or find affection for the people you lead, you shouldn’t be leading them – Brene Brown.

Empathy and compassion mean a lot right now. I’m not talking about being soft or letting people off the hook, rather a motivation to help bring out the best in people. And your relationship with them.

Are you more judgmental than you think? Use these process anchors to help guide the way you show up around mistakes.

1. Manage your emotional response

Don’t let your emotional response be disproportional to the size of the mistake.

Be calm. There is ‘what happened’ and then there is ‘what we tell ourselves about it”. Our emotional state is fed much more by what we tell ourselves about it versus what happened.

2. Double check: Were your expectations of the person in line with their capabilities?

Were they ready for the challenge inherent in the task they made a mistake in? Did they feel confident enough and supported?

Setting someone up for failure is the opposite of empowering someone.

3. Seek to understand before you are understood

Understand how the person (who made the mistake):

  • Is feeling
  • Their intention(s) behind what they did and the context in which they made the mistake
  • Acknowledges and takes responsibility for their involvement (or not)
  • Their views, ideas and/or plan to address what’s happened (if appropriate).

Feeling heard and supported can make all the difference to someone who’s already feeling bad.

4. Decide your role

  • Will you coach, mentor or direct someone? What do they need?
  • Where does this mistake fit in with where that person is at?

Investing in people takes time. Coaching is a muscle you build over time.

5. Create clarity on next steps

Clarity is king. Co-create the next steps and expectations together.

Bringing it all together

No one wakes up hoping they’ll stuff up in their day. Through a lens of learning, mistakes are steps of progress. How someone steps into that progress depends on how you show up and lead. How can your compassion and leadership better support and empower someone when they’ve made a mistake? I’d love to know.


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