Many Canadians probably heard the term “unforced errors” for the first time when they got caught up in nationalistic fervour and watched Bianca Andreescu beat Serena Williams in the U.S. Open finals. Ms. Andreescu committed 17 unforced errors, while Ms. Williams committed 33.

How many did you commit this week at work?

Consultant Jesse Sostrin defines an unforced workplace error as “a self-generated performance gap created by one or more subtle, counterproductive behaviors that you unconsciously adopt.”

Here’s four examples he shares in American magazine Strategy+Business:

  • Arriving late to conference calls and meetings;
  • Being unresponsive to e-mail and phone messages;
  • Falling behind on your work, which delays others’ progress;
  • Exhibiting stress, which makes others hesitate to approach you.

Just as the tennis stars faced pressures in the heat of that final, you undoubtedly struggle to accomplish more with less as demands escalate. Like them, you need to be alert to weaknesses that can emerge under stress and practise better behaviours. Mr. Sostrin suggests asking, “When the demands I face increase and my capacity is stretched thin, a counterproductive habit I have is …?” Follow up with, “What action am I taking (or not taking) that keeps this unwanted habit in place?” That gives you an idea of what to avoid and how.

It’s vital to acknowledge what sets you up for these unforced errors, which occur when you slip into what he calls your prone zone. “It might be fatigue and increasing irritability from waking up tired day after day. Or it could be frustration caused by missing workouts, disorientation from excessive travel or a predictable sore throat that comes after you’ve pushed past your limits for too long. Pay attention to the times when you begin to make counterproductive decisions, so you’ll be more self-aware about which circumstances are most likely to put you into the prone zone,” he writes.

And don’t think you can hide these unforced errors. Colleagues notice. That means you need to acknowledge the cost of the errors.

Again, he has two questions: “If my direct report were making this mistake, how would I react?” and “If a friend were making this mistake, what would I do?” If you would act to help change their behaviour, do the same for yourself.

Blogger James Clear and consultant Scott Eblin both recently raised a common unforced error that can trip up top-calibre people: Preferring to be right rather than be effective. Mr. Clear suggests that instead of trying to be right, assume you are wrong and try to be less wrong. “Trying to be right has a tendency to devolve into protecting your beliefs. Trying to be less wrong has a tendency to prompt more questions and intellectual humility,” he suggests.

Mr. Eblin uses the harsher term “clown car moves” instead of “unforced errors.” When people are disagreeing with your stance, he says, it helps to be less defensive, remembering there is often more than one right answer.

“In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to get spun up or distracted by the little things people do or say that don’t really matter. When you feel yourself getting triggered by that, take a couple of deep breaths to clear your head and calm down. Then remind yourself what you’re really trying to accomplish and line your comments and actions up against that picture,” he writes.

Take a break or sleep on the issue. Ask yourself how much it really matters. There’s a lot of stuff we get exasperated over that in the long run doesn’t matter. So why make an unforced error?


  • Want to improve your listening? Consider meditation to reduce your tendency to fidget and be distracted, advises meditation teacher Meris Gebhardt.
  • What would you change about your last job? That interview question can be explosive if you use it to vent about past bosses or colleagues, warn the career experts at Focus on yourself and things you feel held you back, such as dated technology or lack of career-advancement opportunities.
  • The three best note-taking apps are Evernote, OneNote and Zoho Notebook, according to a poll of Lifehacker readers.
  • To improve your storytelling in presentations or one-on-one discussions, avoid giving too much background, advises consultant Anett Grant. Set the scene concisely or, when you might trip up and give too much background, begin by sharing the point of the story so listeners know where you’re headed.
  • Despite improvements to make mobiles more user-friendly, people prefer larger devices like desktop computers for more important tasks, research shows.

The Globe and Mail, September 19, 2019