“I think making mistakes and discovering them for yourself is of great value, but to have someone else to point out your mistakes is a shortcut of the process.” Shelby Foote, American writer and historian
Thank goodness then for supervisors who “shortcut” your learning process — how helpful they are! So you’ve made a mistake at work. It happens to all of us. But what if this mistake is one that you recognize has the potential to be career-limiting. Can you recover the trust of your supervisor and your career trajectory? Depends on the mistake, of course. After all, some mistakes are so profound and disgusting that decorum prohibits listing them here! If your mistake reflected dishonesty, or dubious ethics, or lack of character, then likely not. But, barring that, whether you can regain your shining star will in large part depend on how you recover. We can’t help with the mistake itself – it’s “done and dusted,” as they say in the UK – but we can help with the recovery process, and with giving yourself the best chance to move forward positively.
When a self-inflicted disaster strikes, don’t suffer from paralysis of analysis. Instead, act effectively. Here’s how, in five concise steps:
1. Make your superior(s) aware ASAP.
Disclosure is your friend, even when it’s embarrassing. If you’ve made a mistake at work or created a powder-keg situation, don’t try to defuse it on your own before it explodes. Your manager can’t provide wisdom and resources to solve undisclosed problems, and your delay in disclosing may waste precious time that makes addressing the situation more difficult. Good leaders insist on knowing bad news in a timely fashion and look unfavorably upon those who knew but failed to say something.
2. Accept responsibility for the mistake at work where warranted.
Acknowledge both the mistake and the resulting problem you created. Your boss wants performance, not excuses. Don’t blame others when something that was your responsibility goes awry. Your boss doesn’t want to hear, “It’s my responsibility, but Joe in Accounting said he was going to handle that.” Other weak, self-serving language that passes the buck:
- “It wasn’t my fault.”
- “I emailed you about that.”
- “That’s not how we’ve done it before.”
- “That’ll never work.”
- “I guess I wasn’t thinking.”
Avoid these phrases!
If you are a team leader, and the mistake was made by someone on your team, the plot thickens, and your response becomes more complicated and perhaps more nuanced. On the one hand, you don’t want to throw your team member under the bus if you can protect him or her. You will generate loyalty if you protect your team. But if the screw-up is of such magnitude that it elevates through your organization, or results in the loss of a client, or requires that a client be meaningfully compensated, then you may need to explain who did what. Your litmus test is this: should you have known of the impending mistake and prevented it from occurring? If lack of oversight on your part contributed to the problem, you are better served by so admitting and, even where the actual mistake-maker is identified, accepting your part in the debacle.
3. Come with a recommended solution.
Don’t just deliver the bad news and depart. Come with a solution and, better yet, options. The CEO of a major construction company was fired on the spot when he told his board, “We’ve got a huge problem here, and I have no idea what to do.” You’ll get more slack at your level, but always come with options and a plan. Address the most immediate needs first, and then address the long-term solution. Be thoughtful – don’t compound your mistake by overreacting or proposing a half-baked recovery plan. Even if your manager doesn’t accept your plan, you’ll have given the problem thought — and sharing your options could start a brainstorming session with your manager that results in a better plan.
4. To the greatest extent possible, participate in the recovery effort.
Do not passively watch the recovery effort. Volunteer to handle the difficult tasks or uncomfortable conversations. Understand that recovery may mean more hours, more stress, and more responsibility for you, particularly in the short term.
5. Evaluate how it happened to ensure the same mistake – or something akin to it – never happens on your watch again.
As the expression goes, “Even a mule walks around the hole the second time.” If you fall into the same hole twice, your odds of recovery would seem much smaller.
The internet is awash with quotes about learning from your mistakes, so we’d be remiss not to include at least one of them here. From legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant: “When you make a mistake, there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, and don’t repeat it.” Coach Bryant clearly subscribed to our (and Aristotle’s) Rule of Three, and his advice regarding how to handle mistakes is solid. And heaven help any player of Coach Bryant’s who failed to heed that advice and repeated a mistake.
Mistakes happen, and likely those above you in your organization have made their share. Learning from a mistake at work is an important part of your professional growth. Only those who are in the game and risking make mistakes. While your mistake happened and cannot be denied, your objective is to recover in such a way that you gain respect for the way you handled it. You owned it, you created a short and long-term recovery plan, you executed the recovery plan (at least your part in it), and you took steps to make sure that the mistake won’t happen again. What more can you do?
If that’s not good enough where you work, you may need to find somewhere else. But the vast majority of mistakes at work can be managed. Handle the recovery promptly and with integrity. Good luck!
A great next read would be: Differentiate Through Character