Can I Recover From My Work Errors?

Question:

I have been working for five years and have made some considerable mistakes on reading and understanding in putting items up over these years. I have been given verbal and written warnings. I do not notice these mistakes until it’s too late. If I notice that I have made a mistake, I can correct these problems that I know of. I have the support from colleagues, but I feel as though they say one thing and do another. However I do put a lot of pressure on myself and plan too far ahead which could be a major cause of these errors

I try my hardest not to make these mistakes. However, I now doubt myself and I am unsure of what to do. I enjoy the job I am in. Moving onto something else has occurred to me but I have no desire of doing so. Is there any advice to stop these mistakes, or have I gone too far and past the point of no return?

Signed,

Don’t Know What To Do


Answer:

Dear Don’t Know What To Do:

This is probably the longest response on our website! Both Dr. Gorden and Tina Rowe are going to respond to your question because it is one that many people could or should ask: “How can I do my work so well that it is nearly perfect all the time?” The other question is also universal: Is there a point at which it’s too late for me to fix the problems of the past?”

Dr. Gorden’s response is first, followed by Tina Rowe’s response. Because there are two responses and because Tina’s is quite lengthy and detailed, there is much more reading than usual, but you will find them both worthwhile.

Dr. Gorden’s response:

Been there five years? That’s an indication that you must have been doing some good things. But you acknowledge you’ve made in your words “considerable mistakes”–some caused warnings. Could your mistakes could be caused by distraction, failure to be well trained, pressure of multitasking, inability skill-wise, communication breakdown, and/or the system? Have you analyzed why you make them? Is there a pattern? You and your supervisor should discover why, especially if some of them were serious enough to provoke warnings.

That’s my first suggestion: to have a time-out session with your supervisor in which he/she will assess your performance and in which the two of you will describe the context of the “considerable” mistakes; the what were they and their causes. To prepare for such a session you ought to review your strength and weakness pointed up in past performance evaluations and note what you have done to improve on the strengths and correct for those weaknesses. Such a self-analysis is like looking in the mirror and seeing both the good and the flaws and then planning on what you might do to enhance what you see and correct what you think needs a make over. You say you “plan too far ahead which could be a major cause of these errors I try my hardest not to make.” From here, it’s difficult for me to understand what brought you to that conclusion, but you and your supervisor could determine what steps you need and she/he might take to help cut down and prevent mistakes. Making mistakes can be a lesson of what not to do and/or what to do. Have you had such a session? If not, is not that past due?

My second suggestion is to think through what you want in a career and of what you should be capable to succeed on that particular career path. You say, “I enjoy the job I am in.” Most of us must work as something even if it’s just a job and not a career. You are fortunate to enjoy your job and to have rejected looking for something else. Therefore, you have or should have weighed if it enables you to feel like you are doing more than simply earning enough money to feed and house yourself and possibly your family.

Have you talked with someone who knows you well about what you might do where you now work to better qualify for your current job and to advance in other ways; possibly finding ways to cut wasted supplies, wasted time, wasted energy, and wasted money?

If you want a career, your mind should not be focused on mistakes, although at this time it must be because you’ve had warnings. But, it should be focused on ways you might join with coworkers and others to improve the quality of goods and service to internal and external customers. One tangible way to do that is to think “team”. I mention this because you say, “I have the support from colleagues, but I feel as though they say one thing and do another.” Team members need to make it OK to describe how they see themselves and to check with one another as to whether that self-perception is really accurate. ********* Tina Rowe’s response:

Not many people are as honest as you are about acknowledging their work errors and saying they want to do better. That is probably one reason you still have your job and why your coworkers try to be supportive. But, as your concern indicates, there is a point at which coworkers become frustrated and irritated no matter how much they like a team member. There is also a point at which warnings stop and a manager has to say, “Enough.”

However, as long as you have a job, it’s not too late to correct problems. And the more you show that you are willing to correct them and are working at it, the more likely you are to be able to keep your job.

Let me share some thoughts to help you consider your situation and to help you decide if you can improve things dramatically or if you should find other work before you are forced to do it. Don’t think about trying to do slightly better, because that’s not the way you want to do things. Instead, think about doing your work in the high quality and high quantity way you knew was expected when you were hired. Aim for perfect not “somewhat better” or “good enough.”

There’s an old rhyme for children that says, “Good, Better, Best/ Never let it rest/Until your Good is Better/And your Better, Best.” Children have years to get to the best level, but employees have to do it quickly and maintain it. So, this project of yours will require focus and continual effort. But the pay-off would be wonderful if you can relax and enjoy work as you want to, while gaining the reputation of being dependably excellent.

1. The person who is most able to evaluate your work is your supervisor or manager. I’m sure you’ve had many discussions with that person, but this might be a good time to take the initiative rather than waiting for him (or her) to talk to you. Since it’s the beginning of the year, it would be easy to start the conversation.

You might say, in a tone of voice that is confident and positive, not frightened or hopeless sounding, “Mr. Morrison, I feel bad about making mistakes and having to be warned about them. You know I don’t make them on purpose and I fix them when I find out about them. But, I want to figure out why I make them in the first place, then learn how to keep them from happening. Where do you think I ought to start?” If you’ve already had that kind of discussion, do it again but with a twist: “I’ve been thinking about what we talked about last week. I’m going to apply every suggestion you gave me and I was wondering if I could meet with you for a few minutes once a week or so to see how I’m doing. Also, is there something since our discussion that you’ve noticed and think I could do better?”

You would word all of that for your own situation and work culture, but that kind of approach is one that is most likely to get a positive response. Almost all supervisors and managers are very happy to know that an employee wants to do better work, so that may open the door to a good discussion about things you could do to focus better and prevent mistakes.

Another benefit to it is that your manager is certainly talking about the situation to his or her manager, and it is much better to report that you have asked for help and seem to be doing better than it is to just say you seem to be doing better.

Having said that you should first talk to your manager I also have to say that unfortunately, many supervisors don’t know how to help employees improve. They know what they’d like to have changed but they don’t know how to coach an employee to make the change. As a result they may sound impatient or end up giving unhelpful advice, like, “You know how to do it, just pay attention and do it.”

You may find that a coworker who does similar work or who understands your job could help you make the improvements. I’ll mention a work aid that might help, further on.

You may only be able to take a couple of hours one or two times, but try to get that focused time without being required to answer the phone often or leave your desk for non-essential work. It will benefit your organization and help your supervisor and coworkers, as well as helping you. If you do it, be sure to thank coworkers who might fill-in for you while you are learning. That’s just the courteous thing to do, but I imagine you are noted for that anyway!

The main thing I wanted to emphasize about this first point is to let your supervisor know that you’re committed to doing well and you’re trying to find work improvement tips and techniques. Mobilize yourself and show it in your demeanor and efforts.

2. Before you talk to your supervisor or manager, do some purposeful thinking about the nature of your mistakes. Ask yourself these questions: *What tasks do you make mistakes about? *What part of the task is most often in error? *Do you make mistakes all the time or only some of the time; and what might cause that difference? *Who catches the mistakes most of the time? *Why don’t you catch all mistakes? *How is it you can make mistakes without noticing them until later, but once you notice them you have the ability to correct them without help? *What do you think is causing the mistakes? *If you could wave a magic wand and change something about your work to keep you from making errors, what do you think would have to change? *Is that possible?

3. There are two components to good work: Willingness and Ability. That means if someone is frequently making mistakes the problem is related to their willingness, their ability or to both their willingness and ability. The lists after those two are lengthy, but do yourself the favor of considering if some of them apply to you.

*Lack of willingness to do work is usually caused by one or more of these: Lack of confidence, fear of failure, fear of harm, fear of being embarrassed, the feeling that results will be bad, feeling that the reward for doing well isn’t enough, lack of personal incentive to do well, dislike of the work, a preference for doing something else or for doing the task another way, negative feelings about the person directing the task or about the organization, negative feelings about the ultimate user of the work, lethargy or inertia that resists the efforts involved in doing the work.

*Lack of ability is usually caused by one or more of these: Lack of knowledge about what is required for good work, lack of the required knowledge and skills, lack of initial training or re-training, failure to apply the training, doing the task in a personally preferred way that is not effective, being trained incorrectly, lack of practice doing it the correct way, lack of feedback as the task is being performed, in order to identify mistakes and correct them, lack of supplies and materials, lack of required assistance, an incorrect required process, lack of reasonable time allowed, failure to use the time allowed or failure to use allotted time effectively, physical inability due to temporary or permanent conditions, mental or emotional barriers or conditions, learning disabilities, motor skill issues, personality traits or personal habits that are resistant to change, purposeful or inadvertent distractions that prevent sufficient attention to the task (sensory distractions, other tasks, one of the fears or negative thoughts mentioned above), external or personal life situations that are distracting, lack of mental or physical energy or the strength to perform a task.

Someone may be willing to do a task correctly but not be able to do it. Someone may be able to do a task correctly but not be willing to do it. Or, someone may not be able to do a task correctly for any of the reasons listed, and not be willing to do what it takes to change the situation, for any of the reasons listed.

So, which would you say applies to you and your mistakes?

*What is keeping you from being willing to put the effort needed into doing work without mistakes? Look at that list and think about it.

*What is keeping you from having the ability to do the work without mistakes? Again, consider that list of causes.

*What if your manager said, “Today is a test. If you make even one mistake you’ll be fired instantly.” Would you be able to work all day without a mistake with that kind of threat?

*What if your manager said, “This week is a test. If you can work all week without any mistakes we’ll give you a ten thousand dollar bonus.” Would you be able to go for a week without mistakes with that kind of incentive?

There are some tasks that even if I tried very hard to do them correctly all day, I’d end up being fired because I simply do not have the knowledge and skills to do them. There are tasks that I repeatedly make errors about and often try to get others to do for me, that if I thought I’d get ten thousand dollars, I’d be able to figure it out and do it right. What about you?

The whole point of #3 in my advice is that it will be helpful for you to decide whether you can or can’t do the work correctly, given your mental, physical and emotional condition during a workday and given your knowledge and skills.

4. If you want to be error free you’ll have to do some focused work improvement. This is when you could use a free hour or two every few days. If you can’t take that time, you can still use these methods.

One of the best ways to learn anything or to correct errors in work processes, is to talk or write about the task as you do it. By doing that you break it down into steps and can see the places where you have the most problems, which allows you to focus your improvement. It can also help you see what external situations are causing you to lose focus. Try what I call “Running Commentary Working.”. Talk to yourself or someone else as you do a task, explaining what you’re doing and why, how you’re doing it, how you’re feeling about it, what you’re watching out for in errors, how you know you’re correct and anything else that explains the work. That kind of commentary can cement the correct steps in your mind.

The next improvement aid is to use any written material available, even if you’ve read the instructions or steps before. If nothing is available, make your own guideline or checklist. It is much easier to do the steps of a task if you can immediately check-off each step as you do it. Perhaps someone who knows the tasks well could help you develop such a checklist for the tasks that are the biggest problems for you.

Develop some “go by’s” as they are sometimes called. A “go by” is a sample item that is perfect and that you can use to compare to each item you do. I have used “go by’s” for reports, financial items, folded tents, flip charts and even how my work locker was supposed to look. Big businesses use those so that every employee, even those who have some problems with learning the tasks, can put out items, file paperwork, finish reports and do other work correctly.

A final work improvement tip is to empty your mind of what you think you know about doing it, and teach yourself all over again or let someone else teach you. Often when we’re re-learning, we still have the wrong practices in our minds. It’s like painting over a rough surface. Sometimes we need to just sand the surface down and start again.

5. This is the last suggestion! Work as hard as you can at work, then go home and relax as much as you can there. If there is something you can do at home to help you at work, do it. Otherwise, leave work at work but resolve to not let home interfere with it anymore than you let work interfere with home.

Many people spend a good part of their work days on email, texting or using the Internet to research, resulting in their private lives continually being a distraction to work. Or, their work becomes their social life and they spend far too much time talking, emailing or getting coffee to stay away from the desk. I don’t know if any of that applies to you. But, it’s something to consider as you think about what is preventing you from doing well.

Best wishes to you with your work improvement project. Let me close with a personal story: When I had been employed for about a year I was called into the office of a high level person in my organization and he confronted me with an error of judgment I had made. He was very, very angry and told me I didn’t belong in the line of work I had chosen as a career. He predicted I would be fired within the next year and he wished he could do it right then.

However, I worked hard to improve, did improve and had that career for 35 years, moving into the highest executive levels. Now, I train others in that career field. That shows you that if a person is willing and able they can do what it takes. But, there have been others in my same career area who have found that no matter how much they tried or how many times they were retrained, they simply didn’t have the personality, traits and abilities to improve enough to be good. That shows you that willingness alone isn’t enough for some work.

The bottom line on both of these lengthy responses is that you will need to work on your own or with others to evaluate the cause of your errors and work to change what needs to be changed, if it’s within your power to do so. If you can’t make the changes, no matter how much you want to, especially if you are prevented from it in some way, you may decide it would be better to find a place where you can be more successful. But even then, you will know you have done your best.

Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe