Mistakes, apologies, remedies and satisfaction

The other day, the postman came up to me in the road and said he thought he might have pushed someone else’s post through our letterbox by mistake. I opened the door, examined the post and handed back the wrongly delivered mail. The postman apologised, thanked me and went off to deliver the letters to the correct houses.

There was no real problem here. A mistake had been made – perhaps in a momentary lapse of concentration – but had been remedied with an apology.

All too often, we are ready to complain without thinking. While, as a nation, we may have been too ready to put up with mistakes or poor service in the past, now we are just as likely to err too much in the opposite direction.

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. It doesn’t matter how precise, how dedicated, how skilled, how qualified, how careful we are – we all make mistakes.

This is not an excuse, it is a fact.

Sometimes simple mistakes can have major consequences, but this did not happen. And even if it had, the postman did not intend for it to happen. The whole incident left me appreciating what a great postman we have: what some businesses would call a “great asset”. I don’t believe people are assets or “things”; I believe people are far more valuable and that businesses should realise this.

Most businesses try to quantify everything in financial terms, but I doubt that goodwill can be quantified accurately in this way. Perhaps people’s feelings towards a business – respect or loyalty – are far more valuable than any figures in a company’s financial accounts. The very act of compressing such qualities into figures that can be modelled in systems demonstrates a lack of understanding of them. Even the concepts of brands and coprorate identities are too shallow to encompass them. In recent decades, companies have used practices such as loyalty schemes to reward customers, but these are little more than bribes which do not touch upon the reasons why loyalty is generated. You can’t buy respect.

Ultimately, the way people feel about the innate character of a business is more important than anything else. Goodwill and appreciation are priceless and are the only potential guarantors of business longevity.

Just because a business makes money and is efficient does not prevent it from being mediocre; an exceptional business will attract the respect and goodwill of customers and people in general.

Isn’t this the type of business that entrepreneurs should be encouraged to run?

The act of admitting to a mistake voluntarily and apologising freely was a most refreshing display of courtesy in action. Perhaps in the general rush to make as much money as possible as fast as we can, we forget that many of the problems that occur can be remedied more easily by such a direct and open approach, not just to customers, but to colleagues too.

Many businesses create a “blame culture” where employees are too frightened to admit to mistakes and waste more time covering up than actually working. In such companies, people copy in dozens of unnecessary contacts when they send emails to “cover their backs”, so that they can prove they were not to blame when something goes wrong. And things always go wrong.

Such a culture is extremely damaging both to individuals and organisations.

If there is one thing any one of us can do to eliminate such childish and destructive behaviour, it is to forgive someone for making a mistake. This does not mean turning a blind eye to carelessness, laziness, ignorance or stupidity, it means forgiving a genuine mistake.

If you run a business, how do you prefer your employees to work: spending all their time making sure they don’t make simple mistakes or confidently being as productive as possible for your business?

The answer demonstrates the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

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