It can be painful to admit when we’ve made a bad decision. Maybe you hired the wrong person, or took a job that wasn’t a good fit, or launched a new product line that no one seems to want. It’s human nature to be optimistic and assume that success is just around the corner. Eventually, as the ominous evidence mounts, you may start to doubt your idea. But it can feel overwhelming to admit the mistake in front of your colleagues and professional network. Here’s what to do when you’re starting to realize you’ve made a bad decision.
Recognize you need to act quickly. Humans are highly susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy, which makes it hard for us to end something into which we’ve already put time, money, or effort. That’s why many people stay in unhappy relationships (“but we’ve been together for five years already!”) or hold onto losing stocks (“I bought it at $40 a share and I’m waiting for it to come back”), even when those prospects are dim. Similarly, you may have expended a great deal of political capital advocating for a geographic expansion, so it feels right to keep fighting for it until it proves successful. But if, rationally, it’s never going to be successful, or will take decades to pay off and you need a much shorter timetable, it’s far better for your career to accept the loss now, rather than dragging it out and wasting even more resources.
Identify the remedy
Sometimes a bad decision isn’t a fatal one. You may have hired the wrong person for the job, but if she has the right attitude, she may be open to remedial training to get her skills up to par. You may have approved an expansion into Southern California that’s floundering, but perhaps you can temporarily scale back to a Los Angeles County pilot to learn more about the new market. On the other hand, some problems require drastic and decisive action. If you absolutely hate your new job after a month, you may want to resign asap, so the company can make an offer to a qualified runner-up they spoke with during your recruitment process. It’s essential to take a clear view of how to remedy the bad decision.
Extract the lesson
Could the problem realistically have been foreseen? Sometimes, we’re blindsided—you signed a lease just before a natural disaster struck, or company strategy changed dramatically right after you accepted a new job. But there are also plenty of bad decisions that, if we’re honest, we could have prevented. Maybe you didn’t vet the new job candidate carefully enough, and relied on your gut instead of thoroughly canvassing her past supervisors and colleagues. Perhaps you overlooked growing signs of economic trouble and pushed ahead with the new line, despite knowing that luxury brands often struggle during a recession. Or maybe you didn’t listen to your wife’s qualms about relocating, and now it’s escalated into a full-blown crisis. Making a bad decision is painful, but you can at least partially redeem it by learning from the experience. Take the time to understand where you went wrong. Were you too careless, or did you listen to unreliable sources, or were you blindly overoptimistic? Understanding your decision-making biases, and formulating a plan to overcome them, can help make you smarter next time.
Share the knowledge
It’s a lot easier to sweep bad decisions under the rug and pretend they never happened. But there’s power in taking responsibility. When entrepreneur Jared Kleinert launched an online course—for which he promised partners $11,000 upfront—and sold zero copies, that was a massive failure. But when he wrote about his experience publicly, dissecting the reasons behind his bad decisions and sharing those lessons with others, he changed the discourse. “The second I published it, everyone was saying how vulnerable…and transparent it was,” Kleinert said when I interviewed him. “I think it attracts respect from people.”
Unfortunately, making bad decisions is a part of life: no one has a 100% success rate. Even so, it’s challenging to admit our mistakes, in a culture that still often hides them. But when you do, and you work to remedy them quickly and honestly, it can mitigate the initial problem and earn the lasting respect of your peers.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out.
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