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Turning a Mistake into a Professional Development Win

Q. What is the proper protocol for correcting a co-worker's mistake? I have been in my current position for a year, but in the field for 5, and work with a women in her 60's that is constantly saying incorrect facts. I ignore non-work related errors and only point out work related ones when I think there may be a consequence or would reflect poorly on her. I try to let her know in private, rather than in front of others, and in as casual a way as possible. My worry is the fine line between genuine concern and alienating her or others as a know it all. Any advice would be appreciated.

A. There are all sorts of mistakes people make every day. Some are minor and can be ignored, while other mistakes offer learning opportunities which can have a significant developmental impact. Then there are the mistakes have a negative impact on people, and business and they need to be addressed.

You say this woman is a co-worker, but is she a peer, a subordinate, or at a more senior level than you are? It sounds like you are junior to her in terms of length of service at the company. The answers to these questions do help to determine the protocol

First, review your motive for correcting this woman. If you are her manager, correcting someone regarding work issues, processes, or practices is part of the job. These communications occur on a regular basis, with respect on both sides, and are typically discussed as a developmental need. If you are not her manager, why do you comment? Perhaps there is no benefit to correcting her. Look at what would happen if you didn’t. Does it really matter if the misinformation she relays in not corrected? Many people believe things you may not believe – whether you consider them facts or not. People have opinions which may differ significantly from yours, and it’s important that you are honest with yourself about why you are correcting her and how important it is to the business.

If her mistakes affect your work, you can have a conversation with her. “”I really need your work to be accurate so that my work will be accurate. I know we can both make mistakes, but I don’t want to be responsible for correcting your work, and I am sure you’d rather I didn’t have to correct you.” Another tack is to share a story where you had your facts wrong and what the implications were for you, your team or your company. Knowing that you have been in her shoes will likely put her at ease about hearing she made a mistake.

Correcting anyone in the work environment can be a sensitive situation. If you are a group discussion and you think she has misstated something, you can say, “Are you sure about that? My understanding is XXX.” This allows her to correct her understanding and avoid embarrassment. It also provides the opportunity for others to voice their understanding of a work related issue.

If there is one consistent mistake she makes which reflects poorly on her and you are truly trying to support her, speak to her privately. “You do a great job and I really like working with you. I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to tell you the word is pronounced anecdote. You tell great stories, and I want people to focus on those and not your mispronunciation of the word.”

Avoid being perceived as a know it all by focusing on your own accuracy and letting others have the opportunity to correct people long before you need too.

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