What To Do After You Messed Up At Work
I heard a story this week about a young woman who just started her first office job and innocently replied all to an email. I can only imagine the unexpected scorn that followed. It is a harsh truth that all careers are riddled with dozens, if not hundreds, of mistakes.
Everyone has a slightly different coping mechanism. Some will immediately blame others (watch out for these folks) while others internalize the blowback to the point of paralysis.
The good news is that your mess up will probably be forgotten in a few days and not seriously affect your career. In fact, psychologists say that forgetting is necessary for us to remember what is important. And are you really that important to that guy who reminds you of that rat from Willard? So take heart.
The bad news is that mistakes are inevitable. And they are painful.
Since I have stomached my fair share of mistakes, I wanted to share what has helped me.
1. Keep Going
Sometimes you have to learn how to dance in the rain. In the case of the unwitting reply all, chalk it up to being a rookie. If somebody taunts you, smile and say, “I’m new.” It’s more likely people will snicker behind your back in which case there’s nothing you can do, so let it be. There will always be other mistakes made by other people to talk about tomorrow.
Besides, who hasn’t made a mistake? If somebody raises their hand, you can assume they’re even worse – they’re a liar.
2. Be Gentle
It’s natural to feel guilty after an unintended episode. Move through this stage as quickly as possible. Many embattled women try to justify their abuse by rationalizing their own actions. Did I do something wrong? No, you did what you thought was right otherwise it wouldn’t be a mistake. Be glad that you are learning and have some ice cream.
3. Come Clean
If the mistake is large enough, own it and apologize. For example, I had an analyst once who put budget numbers into a presentation that were all off by a full financial year. Stress and deadlines go hand-in-hand, but I will never forget his denial about the mistake.
Everybody makes mistakes. It’s important to own your part in a dire situation. Your manager will respect your honesty and help you get out of it. That’s their job. They are paid to be responsible for your work. You are part of a team.
4. Identify The Source
Nobody likes hearing excuses, but they are not without merit in the office. When a television show premieres, there is a collective holding of breath when the ratings roll in the next day. You can be sure every side is gaming an excuse in case of missed expectations – the story was not unique, marketing did not break through the clutter, or (if all else fails) the Nielsen sample is totally off.
The point here is to be aware of why something happened. Most managers understand that mistakes don’t happen in a vacuum. It can be helpful to have a candid conversation of what happened and allow experienced managers or mentors give you practical advice.
For example, maybe another competing project is dominating your time. Lay out the facts and keep the tone proactive by suggesting a solution. Good managers never blame people for mistakes, but hold them accountable for learning and asking for help in the future.
Note if your boss is dismissive, then take that as information about the culture and consider whether it is a place where you can safely grow.
5. Do Something
Coming out on the other side of mistakes requires action. Practically, this could mean asking about protocol before communicating outside the department.
What about the risk of being annoying? This is where style comes in. And also why I started a website dedicated to helping everyday employees communicate better. Remember it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
Especially when recovering from a mistake, your manager will appreciate the additional sensitivity. I knew somebody working for a powerful celebrity that got reamed for making decisions without their approval. He quickly got into the rhythm of making sure they were involved in every decision – big and small. Eventually, they rolled back their oversight and allowed him to make decisions on their behalf.
Every workplace is different. In this case, this is what they needed to trust him again. It is the hardest thing to earn, but essential. Trust is the bedrock of all successful teams.
And success is knowing your boundaries while having the confidence to be flexible about everything else. Navigating troubled waters creates the resilience to be your best self. It is a high price, but worth it in the end.
Mistakes and all.
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”