Moving Past an Error of Judgment

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Recently I wrote about Ira Chaleff’s fine new book, Intelligent Disobedience, that explores situations where ignoring your supervisor’s command may be an act of wisdom and courage. In response, a friend told me a story about an executive who kept pushing on a proposal after her boss had nixed it. In this case, the CEO not only forgave the executive, but also had a transformative leadership experience as a result of his team member’s challenging behavior. In this post I’ll share that story, modified to protect identities, and then offer my own suggestions about how you can recover from a poor decision at work.

That CEO, who I’ll call “Tony,” ran a large medical technology company, and “Sarah” led one of the company’s research and development units. Sarah had teams exploring a variety of tools for delivering more effective patient care. Personally, she was particularly interested in devices addressing cardiac disease because she had friends and family members with heart problems.

How to bounce back after a poor decision at work

Sarah sent Tony a detailed proposal for an innovative device with a high likelihood of helping patients suffering from a certain kind of heart defect. She made a strong case that the device could save patients’ lives and that it had a good chance of moving quickly through the regulatory review process.

When he received Sarah’s proposal, Tony was preoccupied by a corporate merger. Although normally a thoughtful and thorough decision-maker, this time Tony just took a quick look and fired back a note saying that the proposal was a non-starter because the defect was relatively rare and the impacted patients didn’t represent a big enough market to justify the cost of introducing the product.

Despite Sarah’s appeals for further consideration, Tony made it clear that he didn’t want more resources to be invested in the device. But Sarah was haunted by the thought of the people who might die without it. So she ignored Tony’s wishes and authorized continued work on her pet project, quietly folding the costs into a much larger cardiac initiative.

Sarah kept pushing forward without seeking permission. Eventually the device was approved and did indeed start saving lives. Soon the technology was attracting attention in the medical community because it held the potential for additional applications. Then one day Tony called Sarah to his office and handed her a letter from his college roommate. It said, “Tony, your new device saved my life.”

Soon after that, at an annual meeting of the company’s top 400 leaders, Tony told the story of Sarah’s defiance. And he made three statements that won respect from his team and shaped the corporate culture for handling future errors of judgment:

  • He apologized for being wrong and acknowledged that he had told Sarah “no,” not once but three times.
  • He commended Sarah for having the courage and strength of her conviction to approach leaders repeatedly and finally buck the system because it was the right thing to do for patients.
  • He committed to doing something “exceptional” to make amends and create a process that would make future errors in judgment less likely.
Sometimes ya gotta say "sorry"
Sometimes ya gotta say “sorry”

In an environment where innovation is encouraged, professionals must become comfortable with taking risks. And where risk-taking is the norm, it’s inevitable that some decisions won’t work out well. Savvy leaders support the creative culture by modeling a method of accepting responsibility and moving forward after a mistake has been made. One smart way to manage judgment errors is the three-part approach I call “Plan A”:

  • Acknowledge that you made the wrong choice and accept responsibility for the consequences. At the same time, thank anyone who helped you to recognize or overcome the problem.
  • Apologize for the damage you caused, or the opportunity you missed. Be specific so that people can see how you recognize the result of your choices and actions.
  • Identify Action Steps that will rectify or make up for your mistake and make it more likely that good judgment will prevail in the future.

We all make decisions that don’t work out well. Next time you make a blunder, face it straight on, try handling it with Plan A, and quickly refocus on doing excellent work in the future.

To explore more career issues, please check out my book, Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO, coming soon from Career Press.

Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.