Years back, when I owned a little tearoom and was in China on a tea expedition, I thought it would be a nice gesture to bring some fruit to the owner of a teagarden we were visiting.
With the best intentions, I brought this man four, big red apples. When we entered his very fancy office, with Chinese flags in the corner, a large poster of Mao, and a few secret service-looking assistants posted up in the room’s corners, I admit to wishing I’d dressed a little more formally. But we were wily, rugged types back then. We were as much engaged in bushwhacking through the jungles of Xishuangbana, searching for the oldest tea tree on earth, as we were in meeting business associates along the way.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the outfit that was the real mistake that day. It was the fruit. When I handed the teagarden owner those four, perfect apples, a palpable chill overtook the room. With a cautious smile, he accepted them and handed them at once to a female assistant who glanced worriedly at me and immediately left the room.
Only after the visit did the founder of our tea company tell me that four is the number for death in China, and you never, ever give gifts in fours. In fact, best to avoid giving gifts in even numbers all together, I remember him saying with a laugh.
Tetraphobia, which refers to an extreme avoidance of the number four, is a common and well-known cultural belief (and therefore arguably not a phobia) in the Far East. A quick Wikipedia search confirms my mentor’s wisdom, and even remarks that “just mentioning the number 4 around a sick relative is strongly avoided.”
So, yeah. Whoops.
You can bet that since then (especially as someone who loves doing the gift thing well), I’ve put a lot of consideration into gift-giving, especially across cultures! It’s worth noting that if your work is intercultural in nature, it’s not just about being polite, it’s actually paramount to your success and integrity to become as educated as you can about the culture(s) with whom you’re doing business.
Nevertheless, mistakes happen. Sometimes big ones. Trust me when I say, I've made much bigger ones than bringing 4 apples to a Chinese colleague. Ones that have cost me time, money, and even strained relationships for a time. So here are 5 ways (anything but 4!!) to handle those inevitable mistakes that do happen in our professional careers.
5 Tips for Correcting and Making the Most of Your Business Mistakes
1. Take 100% responsibility.
In Hendrick Gay's The Big Leap, he talks about the idea that so often we’re get caught trying to ciphen out absurd percentages of blame in the face of conflict. We may not give it an exact number, but it’s in our psyches thanks to a culture of pervasive “othering.” He suggests that instead, we see every conflict or challenge as a 200% game, wherein each player owns 100% of their part (assuming there are two players). One of the worst things we can do when we make a mistake is to blame someone else for it. The second worst thing we can do is become stymied by self-blame.
Instead, we can take control of how we want to feel or experience the situation. We can see it as an opportunity to learn. We can figure out how to most quickly reach a mutually beneficial solution. We can take 100% responsibility for our emotional state, including the experience of guilt, shame, or other self-abuse. Finally, we can remain empathic and warm, and take rightful responsibility- without taking responsibility for the emotional state of others. These questions are the empathway to non-violent problem-solving.
2. Come to the table with multiple solutions to right the wrong.
Now, in the case of “poison apples,” really the only solution would have been to magically make a 5th apple appear. In cases like that, you kind of just have to skip #3 (do apologize) and just head right to #4 (Learn from it). But most business mistakes are fixable. Whatever helped bring the mistake to fruition (pun intended), you know from #1 that you must and can take 100% responsibility to correct it. By bringing not just one but a few solutions to the table, you’re showing that you’re not only committed to correcting the mistake, but that you’ve actually taken time to think it through and present options. That said, self-love has to back accommodation, lest you accidentally agree to something that doesn’t really feel right or fair.
3. Don’t apologize unless you really feel you must.
I can’t believe that statement just arrived on this page, because I’m a world-class apologizer! Actually, I’m a “recovering apologizer.” Seriously, we need a 12 step program. But here’s the thing, our integrity in life shows when we follow the above advice to make things right (or avoid them in the first place) much more than when we apologize. You’re a great person, doing your best. You’re a human. Though the business world is slowly warming, truly it’s the least human place on earth. Don’t be late. How could you f*%k this up?! Muscle through the day, even though your mom just died… or whatever other demands we feel at times professionally. If you are by and large offering the highest quality goods or service you can; if you’re honest and work diligently to right any wrong, then apologies are unnecessary or an afterthought at best. Making a mistake does not negate the rest of your wonderful work. We demote ourselves and are demoted by others when we over-apologize. If you do need to say sorry, do it once and only once, and be crystal clear what it is you’re apologizing for.
4. Learn As Much As You Possibly Can From It.
Sounds obvious. But I want to recommend actually taking this to an extreme if you own a business. Start a system for tracking and changing mistakes. Maybe you journal about it, start a spreadsheet or make immediate adjustments to your policies. There are four core questions to consider: What exactly went wrong? What did it cost me (financially, emotionally, relationally)? What did I learn? This last questions can reveal deep revelations about our own blockages or just simple tactical or technical lessons- like don’t bring 4 things to anyone in China ever again! Finally, we decide: what am I going to change about how I do business/operate professionally?
5. Move on.
I care quite deeply what others think of me. To feel as though I’ve upset someone, or they have any sort of bad impression of me or my work is really painful for me. So I get it. But life is learning. That’s the deal. If you’ve taken all the above steps, then you’re a legendary business genie and there’s nothing else you can do. If folks can’t forgive you or they want to leave you a bad review, that’s their business. You’ve got your own to run… so let go, love yourself up, and celebrate all your wins with some fine wine …. or perhaps a delicious cup of Chinese green tea. ;)