Everyone makes mistakes. Like it or not, no one is perfect. No matter how careful you are, no matter how much you double check yourself, you will screw up. It’s bad enough when your error happens on your own time – it can be potentially disastrous when it happens at work. But here is some good news – it’s how you react that makes all the difference.
A mistake does not have to damage your career; how you handle yourself afterward, however, has the potential to affect your reputation and even your future. The great jazz man Miles Davis once said, “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” It takes integrity and courage to own up to your mistakes and take responsibility. Successfully managing the aftermath of the error demonstrates your professionalism and builds trust with your leadership and your team.
Don’t panic. Focus on your plan to resolve the issue. Admittedly it’s really hard not to lose it. But by remaining calm you give the impression that you are in control, and you will have the capacity to take whatever corrective actions you need to take.
Fix what you can immediately. I’ll never forget the time a colleague and I were working long hours on this rather complicated proposal. We had finally finished it, and the print shop had printed all the copies and assembled 10 binders. We were doing a last “white glove” review, and guess what – the customer’s name was spelled wrong on the front cover! Luckily we caught it. With very little time, we put our heads together, and quickly created new covers, printed them on the local printer, and replaced all the covers. And then went to happy hour and lost it!
Apologize to the right people, at the right time. Determine who is affected by your mistake. Consider any potential adverse impact on the organization as well. On whom will your mistake reflect negatively – your boss? Your colleagues? Your team? Identify specifically who you must apologize to. Also consider when the best time to talk to that person is. It’s best to discuss it when you have their full attention, even for just a few minutes. But remember that bad news is not fine wine – it does not improve with age. Consider what you will say, prepare yourself, then go to them and apologize in person. Keep it brief and to the point. Say the words “I’m sorry”. However, while it is important to take responsibility for your mistakes, apologizing too much or to the wrong person can make the mistake appear bigger than it was and make you look unprofessional. Apologize once, take appropriate action, and then let it drop. Don’t discuss it with anyone who doesn’t need to know. If your mistake impacted no one but you, keep it to yourself. There is no one else to apologize to.
Focus on the impact of you mistake. In addition to simply acknowledging the action itself and apologizing, make it clear that you understand the impact of your error, and the efforts you will make to ensure that it does not happen again. When you apologize, apologize for the impact, not for the error. Don’t discuss why you made the error – it will sound like an excuse. By focusing on the impact your mistake had on others, or on the company, it demonstrates your understanding of the impact and value of your work and the work of your team.
Prepare a recommendation if appropriate. If you couldn’t fix the error immediately, determine whether or not the mistake can be fixed. If so, propose how you can fix it. If not, determine if there is some corrective action you can take to smooth the situation or prevent it from happening again. You can offer to call the customer, drive to the warehouse to pick up the missing parts, adjust the procedure, whatever is appropriate to the error. Of course, sometimes a mistake just cannot be fixed. It is just as important to be able to recognize when the best course of action is to do nothing. Be able to explain why you believe that is the case.
Forgive yourself. Learn from your mistakes, develop better processes to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, and, in the immortal words of Elsa, “Let it go”. Recognize that mistakes will happen, but that handling stressful situations with grace and competence will allow you to recover from errors and improve your skills. Research has shown that CEOs and managers who take responsibility for their errors have better reputations and perform better. So acknowledge, apologize, repair, and then declare the situation over. Going back to building your professional reputation by doing great work is the best antidote to mistakes, and will rebuild any lost trust over time.