So you've made a mistake and it's public...
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The following is a bit of advice on how to handle having made a mistake with public consequences. It is based on considerable experience making and observing mistakes in the Wikimedia movement.
So you've made a mistake and it's public…
Understand that there is no point in pretending you have not made a mistake; pretending you have not made a mistake will make you look bad.
Think about the mistake you have made.
- What led you to make it?
- Were you acting on bad information?
- Without sufficient information?
- On intuition?
- Were you pressed by a deadline or by a strong opinion from someone else?
- Were you following a broken process?
- Did you act on the basis of circumstances you wish were the case rather than the circumstances that are in fact the case?
If it helps, consider privately writing down your answers to these questions.
Then, think about what can be redressed/undone/reverted about this mistake.
Think about the prospects of making this mistake, or a mistake of its kind, again.
- How likely is it?
- Based on learning from this mistake, what steps are you able to take to mitigate or reduce the odds of its recurrence?
- Of those steps, which are you willing to take?
- Of those, which can you take right now, before responding in public?
- Which are you ready to commit to, longer term?
Armed with your best thinking from Steps 1 and 2, write a concise(!) public e-mail or on-wiki message acknowledging, as clearly and crisply as possible:
- that you have made a mistake;
- what the mistake was, as precisely as possible (e.g. not "I used bad judgment" but "I neglected to look at relevant data before deciding to fund Wikimedia Antarctica");
- that you are sorry about the harm/damage/waste/confusion your mistake caused (being specific would demonstrate understanding);
- what you have learned from making this mistake;
- what steps you have already taken to redress the damage or undo the results of your mistake;
- what steps you are going to take to mitigate or reduce the odds of a mistake of this sort recurring, including timelines for specific actions, if possible and applicable; and
- invite comments on your understanding as reflected in this post, explicitly encouraging people to tell you if they think you've missed the point or if one of your intended actions is inadvisable, insufficient, or can otherwise be improved.
These elements are required for your acknowledgement to be also valid as apology, see Apology#Which elements should be included in an apology for the details.
Actually follow-through on the redressing/undoing actions and on the steps you've committed to taking.
Take steps to ensure follow-up on action items that cannot be completed immediately. For example, if one of your corrective steps is to ensure X gets discussed in your next Annual General Meeting, set appropriate reminders to make sure that you actually discuss X by the time that meeting happens.
- Do not hesitate to ask for help at any step of this process. Either reach out to people whose judgment (and discretion, if necessary) you trust, or publicly acknowledge you're having trouble with something (e.g. "Hi, folks. I'm thinking about this mistake, and I have a hard time figuring out how to balance the need for fresh data with the amount of time it takes to generate and review that data. Does anyone have some thoughts on how to best do that?")
- In the public note, and throughout the process, be sure to talk like a human being. Avoid jargon; avoid sounding like your note has been prepared by a Damage Control Specialist. Just tell it like it is. People know the difference.
That's it. It's not as difficult as it may seem.
Questions and answers
- Should I really go through this whole thing every time I make a mistake?
- Ideally, yes. And it doesn't have to take very long, if you are in the habit of being honest in your own mind. However, as with everything, apply your good judgment, and use whatever abbreviated version of this you deem appropriate.
- Wouldn't following this result in drama and upset the community?
- No. On the contrary. Our community understands humans are fallible, and responds very well to (what it perceives as) honest admissions of error, commitments to improve, and most of all demonstrated learning.
- Still, there would be some drama, no?
- Yes, there may be some drama, in the short term. Have we mentioned humans are fallible?
- So, wouldn't it be better to silently learn the lessons and move on?
- No. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as Judge Brandeis observed. Proper handling of mistakes is a sterling quality in anyone, and particularly important in a leader or public servant of any kind. It pays long-term dividends.
- What should I do when I see someone else is making a mistake?
- When you see others making mistakes, first help them see their mistakes and deal with them (e.g. by recycling this text, or by independently offering your analysis and answers to Steps 1 and 2 above).
Remember you make mistakes too, and be tolerant of the time it may take people to accept that they have made a mistake. (But you don't need to allow them to insist they have not made a mistake.)
- But isn't it true that organization/individual X made a mistake and didn't follow this process at all?
- Yes, it's true. And how did that work out?
- Are you suggesting this applies to current goings-on?
- I suggest it applies to every situation involving humans.