To err is human, but sometimes when we realise we've handled something badly at work, we find ourselves at a loss to how we should deal with it. Here are the steps you can take to pick up the pieces and limit the long-term damage as much as possible.
Own Your Mistake And Tell Whoever Needs To Be Told
If you've messed up big, it probably means other people are going to be affected by it. The longer you wait to tell who it affects, the longer it can take to fix whatever needs fixing. It can be scary owning up to your mistakes — as it usually leads to someone being upset with you — but it's best to bite the bullet and tell them sooner rather than later.
If you think you can still fix things — without doing a half-assed job — it may not hurt to try, but it's best to avoid becoming a "quiet fixer". Quiet fixers believe they can fix everything without having to inform anyone of the problems, and often scramble to get things done to save face. The fact is, the mistake you've made could be much larger in scope than you realise. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Toyota Chairman Katsuaki Watanabe explains why it's best to get problems out in the open:
Hidden problems are the ones that become serious threats eventually. If problems are revealed for everybody to see, I will feel reassured. Because once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn't notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them.
When you go to tell your boss what happened, honesty is the best policy. Save the excuses for when you're trying to dodge a coworker's barbecue because now is the time to be clear about what happened. If you forgot to do something, explain to your boss that you spaced and — if you have a good reason — offer up an explanation for why you did. If you tried to take on a task and it didn't go well, you shouldn't have much to be afraid of if you gave an honest effort. Don't let big mistakes get bigger by pretending that nothing happened.
Be sure to apologise to everyone affected as well. What you did may not be personal, but taking full responsibility and giving an earnest apology shows integrity and that you care about the goals and efforts of the people you work with.
Bring A Possible Solution Along With The Problem
You never want to be someone who only brings problems and never solutions, regardless of whether the problem was caused by you or not. If the problem is your doing, having a few solutions to the issue at the ready can also help keep the hammer from coming down on you too hard. Lisa Quast at Forbes explains why you shouldn't bring problems to your manager at all, just solutions:
In today's workplace, if you want to stand out as a valued employee, don't bring problems to your manager — bring solutions. Why? Because there are too many problems for managers to solve all by themselves; that's why you were hired. So don't be part of a problem. Become a solution-generating employee and you'll increase your value to your manager and to the company.
Increasing your value keeps you employed and can help counteract the mistakes you make. You can also show your value by valuing the higher up's time. When you bring solutions to your boss make use of the time efficiently. Your boss is probably a busy person and doesn't have time to sit down and triage your errors. It's your mistake, not theirs.
Come up with multiple fixes for your mistake and pick the one you think is the best. Document it if necessary and have answers prepared for the questions your boss might ask. Give your boss your pick for the best solution, but have the other options fresh in your mind just in case. You may have dropped the ball, but that doesn't mean you can't show your boss how you can pick it up. You might get chewed out, but you're probably a little safer if you can show an honest effort to rectify your wrong.
Forgive Yourself And Learn From Your Mistake
Facing your mistakes is hard to do, but it's important to forgive yourself for messing up. You made a mistake: big deal, we all make mistakes. Make forgiveness a part of your daily routine, and when the big blunders come along, always be looking for ways you can make things better instead of dwelling on it. You're not the first person to make a major error. Look at the failures of the people you look up to, and you'll realise it's all a part of the process. The greatest of the greats was a human too, and they most likely had more than a few "whoopsies" in their lifetime.
What's most important is that you keep moving forward. Steven Tobak at Inc. shares some wise words about how it's not the failure that matters:
...here's the thing. Jazz great Miles Davis once said, "When you hit a wrong note, it's the next note that makes it good or bad." To this day, I marvel at the wisdom behind that simple notion. If you just add a little self-confidence and courage, it's all you need to recover from even the worst blunders, career or otherwise.
Take a deep breath and reflect. What can you learn from your mistake? If you forgot to do something, you know you need a better way to remind yourself of your tasks. If you did something incorrectly, you know you need to follow instructions better or ask for help when you need it. Make a case study out of your legendary failure and pick it apart to understand exactly what went wrong and how you can avoid it in the future. Patricia Wallington at CIO calls this process "doing a postmortem", and explains why you shouldn't just bury the body:
Use this to understand the mistake so that you don't repeat it. Ask "why" five times to get past the symptoms and down to the underlying causes. How could you have avoided the problem? More information, wider participation, better discipline, tighter controls, better judgment, a better sense of timing? Make changes that will eliminate the problem. You may be tempted to skip the postmortem, but it's actually the most valuable part of your experience. If you learn nothing from the mistakes that you will inevitably commit, you will put your career in jeopardy. I often think that I learned more from my own mistakes than from any other source.
Once the mistake is fixed, the sooner you can forgive yourself and figure out what went wrong the better off you'll be, but there's no due date. Don't rush back onto the field with a broken leg. Everyone recovers from things differently, and if you're not ready to really dig in to your folly, wait. Susan Halden-Brown at Human Kinetics suggests finding a way to get back on track, but only when you're ready:
The other thing to do here is to give yourself time. Consider the way tennis players refocus before a second serve. They bounce that ball, twirl that racket, and take up that pose as often as they need to before they unleash another missile. Sometimes, to gain time, they summon a ball boy, squint at the sun, or wipe their wristband across their forehead. Whatever it takes.
Once you've forgiven yourself, learned what went wrong, and taken a moment to clear your mind, you're ready to get back on the horse. Not only will you learn from your mistakes, but you will learn how to deal with your mistakes better and better every time they come along.
Rebuild Your Boss's Trust
A quarterback will only throw the ball to a clumsy receiver so many times. When you've dropped a few too many passes from your boss, you need to find a way to prove you're capable of catching again. Start with easy plays instead of hail Marys, if you can and slowly but surely prove to your boss that you're still capable of taking on important tasks. Little assignments done well can go a long way.
It also helps to go above and beyond with your work — even if you did that before — and make a few sacrifices to please the work gods. David Maxfield at Crucial Skills describes a few ways going the extra mile can play out:
...it might mean volunteering to do a job nobody likes to do, spending extra time on a task that needs to be done, or getting up to speed on a skill that's difficult to master. Work to create a reputation for doing more than what's required.
While you crawl back into your boss's good favour, remember to do what you say and say what you do. Don't say you'll do something, unless you actually know you can do it. When you complete a task, let them know so they're aware of the things you do right. Keeping the other party informed is the key to rebuilding trust with anyone, so make it a point to keep your work transparent.
Taking the initiative to prove you can still handle the job isn't always easy, but over time you can prove to your boss that mistakes aren't a common occurrence. With a little patience and dedication, you can make yourself known as the employee who works hard when something goes wrong instead of the employee that causes things to go wrong when they work.
We all make mistakes, and you have the power to choose whether to show integrity by being honest and owning up to those mistakes, or pretend that you're perfect by covering your mistakes up. Work to help fix the damage and be a part of the solution. Forgive yourself so you can move forward, and most importantly, take the time to learn from your blunder and prevent the same thing happening again in the future.