Be honest: do you find it easy to move on from your mistakes? How did you react the last time you made a mistake at work? Did you hold your hands up and do your best to put the problem right – or did you berate yourself for being a failure but decide there was nothing you could do to rescue the situation?

According to an article that crossed my desk this week, a mistake doesn’t necessarily have to be a disaster. In fact, if handled appropriately, it can turn into a productive experience.

Writing in Inc magazine, US entrepreneur Howard A Tullmann suggests that managers need to learn to tell the difference between failing and making mistakes. Failure, he says, is about giving up – while success often comes from learning from our mistakes.

In the fast-moving environment of an SME, where boundaries are constantly changing, it’s almost inevitable that managers will get things wrong sometimes. The people who will go on to thrive, however, are those who make sure they get the best out of their bad decisions and don’t repeat them.

Here are Tullman’s five tips for how to walk the path between productive mistakes and unproductive failures.

Make cheap mistakes

The heading might sound flippant but the message is a serious one. If you are working in uncharted territory or starting a potentially risky new project, it pays to proceed with caution. Start with small steps and be ready to scale up quickly if things go well – or to abandon ship if they don’t work out as planned. That way, you won’t have cost the business (or your reputation) too dearly if things don’t pan out and making it easier to move on from your mistakes, too.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind

People often continue down a path they know is the wrong one because they can’t see a way out or they are frightened of losing face. If you can see you are heading in the wrong direction with an issue or project, stop! Be aware of what is happening around you and be ready to move fast and flexibly. Sticking with a mistake is worse than making it in the first place, because the situation certainly isn’t going to get any better.

Don’t dwell on the past

It’s OK to admit you’ve made a mistake – but once you’ve held your hands up, you don’t need to dwell on it. The key to learning from your mistakes is to “make ‘em, admit ‘em, correct ‘em, forget ‘em”. If you are worrying about the past, you’re not focusing on the future and won’t be able to build up vital personal resilience to future challenges. So deal with it and move on.

Separate mistakes from problems

It’s important to understand the difference between mistakes (errors that happen once) and systemic problems (errors that happen over and over again). Mistakes will always happen, but they shouldn’t happen over and over again. If it becomes clear you are dealing with a persistent problem, look at why it’s happening and try and eliminate the causes.

Be Honest

There’s no point trying to hide or cover up a mistake – the truth will always come out in the end. And of course, you certainly shouldn’t try and shift the blame onto others. The best strategy is to admit you’ve messed up, say you’re sorry and let people know you’re taking the situation seriously. If you can show them you are attempting to address the problem and move on, they will respect you much more than if you try to hide what’s happened – meaning you can move on from your mistakes much, much easier.

What lessons have you learned from your mistakes? Why not share your experiences with other Cezanne HR blog readers?

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.