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Photo Credit: TalentCode.com

Everything was going according to plan. I was putting the final touches on the latest revision of my clinical research paper when I caught something. It couldn’t be?! I had made a big mistake and substituted one bit of information for another, erroneously. All the subsequent analysis that my team and I had done was no longer applicable. It was a horrible, sinking feeling. I looked through the records to see how I had missed this error for so long. I put the pieces together, came up with a plan to fix it, and then had to write the humbling email to my team. I was direct. I explained my error, apologized for making it, and offered a plan to correct. And then I waited for their response . . .

Within minutes I heard back. The neurosurgeon leading our team simply thanked me for being honest, having integrity and for attention to detail. The rest of the team echoed those sentiments and they were repeated in subsequent messages. We were to present the data as is.

Truth matters. Even in a cultural setting in which the prevailing current of thought may favor what you can get away with or how skillfully you can bend the facts, the simple truth matters. My mistake, while real, was also interpreted as being attentive to detail when caught. The very thing we think could jeopardize our progress, can instead be a stepping stone. In a year and half, I will be making significant decisions about patients as I start residency. I will not always be right, but I can always be forthright. I owe my patients and colleagues that.

So if like me, you make a big mistake, here is what I have found works professionally (but I would argue makes sense for personal situations as well):

  1. Address the mistake in a timely manner
  2. Admit to your role in clear and active terms (not “an error was made” but “I made an error”)
  3. Have a plan to address it (even if a different plan is used; this shows initiative and further commitment to the project).
  4. Execute the fix quickly but thoroughly and circle back to your team.
  5. Reflect on how the error happened so as not to repeat it.

I feel for the medical personnel of Doctors Without Borders who had endure a bombing that killed 22 people this week in Afghanistan. The US government  said it was a mistake; DWB argue otherwise. What is the truth? We don’t know yet. But here is why developing an ethos of truth is so critical. One day, it’s a research paper, the next someone’s life is on the line. The seed of our decision making is planted long before we make the high stakes decisions. Will we be ready?

Daniel Coyle in his insightful article, How to Make Better Mistakes, refers to a study with an unusual result: Harvard Business professor, Amy Edmondson, studied a series of hospitals and found that the top hospitals reported TEN TIMES more errors than the bottom hospitals. In actuality, the hospitals were making about the same number of mistakes but top hospitals were proactive about reporting them. How did that help? That transparency created a safe zone and culture in these hospitals where employees still felt free to create and innovate without fear. The fearful approach of hiding errors because of consequences creates an atmosphere where the brain retreats and is paralyzed. Coyle puts it this way, “mistakes are not a verdict, but information to be sifted over.”

Errors should be avoided, of course, but if you have blown it, you are in good company. Of course, there will always be those who try and capitalize on our errors, but the principle is still worth it, even with temporary difficult consequences. Most of the time, though, people respond positively if given the chance. I still remember facing another actor on stage who had completely forgotten his next line (something every actor has faced) which was “What’s going on in town?” When I recognized his blank look I immediately said, unscripted, “You must be wondering what’s going on in town?” He lit up with recognition and said, also unscripted, “You read my mind!” Audience didn’t notice a thing and the play moved on smoothly. We had a good laugh about the whole thing backstage. Most of the time, people are gracious about our admitted errors because ultimately they recognize themselves.

Comments
  1. Malaika says:

    This is so true JB! Especially the part about how our current behaviour affects how we will make decisions concerning the truth in the future! Great post with clear, practical advice. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Kurlz! You’re welcome. There are many more implications to this question including what we model for our children . . . .

    Like

  3. Poetic Liberty says:

    The principle is still worth it! love this!

    Like

  4. What a great post! How you deal with mistakes can really change everything. That Harvard study makes a lot of sense, since you can only learn from errors when they are acknowledged. Only then is it possible to address the underlying conditions. We talked about very similar findings recently in my med school classes on how to deal with mistakes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for visiting my blog and for your kind comments! I completely agree with you about the need to get to “underlying conditions” Really glad to hear this is coming up in your medical school classes. I think medical students need to hear that high achievement and openness about errors are not mutually exclusive.

      Liked by 1 person

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