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"I made a HUGE mistake at work". Here's what to do next

Mistake

We’ve all been there, that heart-sinking moment of complete disbelief. The sheer force of the blood pumping through your veins reaches an audible pitch that sounds an awful lot like How? How? How? How did this happen? How did I LET this happen? How am I going to fix this?

Whether you copied a client on the wrong email, grossly under quoted on a job, misread the terms of a contract and have now signed away the company’s earnings for the year, its all tied up neatly in this little caveat called Human Error. It happens from time to time. And while it can’t always be undone, the actions you take immediately thereafter sure will lessen the blow.

Your immediate instinct might be to sweep the mistake under the rug, point fingers, run and hide or feign ignorance, but none of these are going to help you in the long run. Take a breath and read on.

1. Resist the “Quickly and Quietly” approach

Depending on the severity of the mishap, the urge to deal with things quickly and quietly might not be wholly applicable. Making rational decisions when your head is on fire is near impossible. Allowing yourself just a little bit of time to strategise a suitable response is certainly the wiser choice here. And while no one wants to broadcast his or her mistakes from the loud speaker, at the very least bring your manager in and lay things out on the table as openly and honestly as possible. While their horror and rage might not be welcomed, their insights may prove worthwhile. If necessary, hide behind the afore mentioned caveat (most managers won’t need reminding because we’ve all been there).

2. Own it then apologise for it

Don’t try and side-step it, excuse it, or shy away from it. What’s done is done: if it was even marginally your responsibility at the time the blunder took place, you need to own it and you need to apologise for it.

If the impact of your mistake is far reaching, identify the people in its wake (/path of devastation!) and go apologise. Where possible, do this in person as the sincerity of your presence will humanise the situation and possibly yield a more understanding response from those afflicted. This is not the time to start overthinking things. Take a few deep breaths and see the situation for what it is. Know your intentions were good at the time the error occurred and know that they are just as well intended now in getting things rectified.

3. It’s time to start overthinking things

…Not in that creepy, harmful way that induces stomach ulcers but enough overthinking to make sure you’ve covered all your bases. It’s solution time and the ideal way to go about this is to consider the best possible outcome and the worst possible outcome. Then devise every imaginable route you can take to reach the best one and every possible thing you should avoid in ending up at the worst one! Including a manager or afflicted colleague at this point might be helpful for another perspective (the sheer panic of it all might be clouding your judgment).

4. Wheels in motion

Spearhead the means by which to get your mistake sorted. You’ve laid out your strategy now get things in motion. Does it require a re-scope of your project? An awkward meeting with a client perhaps? Or a timely phone call to a lawyer? Whatever your fate, don’t put it off. Even if you’re full of doubt and self-loathing as you stave off the urge to run and throw up, you need to maintain your professionalism. You can cry on the way home but right now you need to make things happen.

5. Crouch, hold, engage

Lay low for a short time, if only to get your head straight. It’s ok to feel sheepish and awkward but shake it off after a day or so. A mistake is only a mistake and tomorrow someone might own up to something that will completely overshadow yours. Always hold onto your dignity. A single mistake does not comprise your entire offering, and it certainly can’t undo all your positive actions in the lead up to this fateful day. And finally engage your colleagues on the matter and when the time is right have a laugh about it.

6. Lesson learned

It goes without saying but when it’s all wrapped up (and you still have your job in tact), reflect on how the whole thing came about and make a point of implementing the necessary behaviours to avoid anything similar happening again. Let those who felt the brunt of your oversight know that you’ve taken the whole experience on board and won’t be making the same mistake again any time soon. You’ll find most people are forgiving of mistakes as it’s all part of learning – but you have to demonstrate that you have the self-awareness and drive to improve in future.

Naomi Chan

Career Coach and professional career hacker at Team Vanna

5 min read

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