#WORKFAIL: Dealing with a Major Screw-Up at the Office
We all make mistakes—and those mistakes directly affect our colleagues.
When something goes wrong, your first concern is probably how to recover (or cover it up) before anyone notices. But then there are those moments—those awful, shameful, anxiety-inducing moments—when you’ve messed up, and there’s no time to fix it. And that’s when how you handle your guffaw matters more than anything, even the mistake itself. Your coworkers won't remember next week how the mistake happened, so much as how much work landed on their desks thanks to you. Take a minute to memorize our 5-step recover process for your next work crisis.
STEP 1: TAKE A DEEP, FREAKING BREATH
Before you do anything, ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to prevent the mistake from getting bigger. If you emailed the wrong person a confidential memo, here’s hoping you’ve enabled Google Undo. Now use it.
If there’s nothing you can do to stop what's happening, at least you know what’s coming: trouble. It's big and scary, but you have to face it. So before you rise from your desk, take a moment to calm yourself and consider next steps. The mistake's happened, and jumping up and scrambling around won’t help anyone.
Instead, start by taking a few a seconds to think carefully. Who needs to know first? What about second? Before you step away from your desk, you should have a (at least vague) plan in place about who to see, what to say, and what to do.
STEP 2: ADMIT YOUR MISTAKE, TEMPERED WITH A SOLUTION
Now is the time to head for the person who needs to know first. With mistakes, timing really is everything—and mumbling an involved explanation of what’s happened or making excuses that prove why it’s "not really your fault" sucks up valuable time. Here's the way to go:
Step into Person #1’s office, and keep it short. Start with: “Anna, I think I made a mistake that’s going to cause a problem.” Next (in simple terms!), explain what happened, offer a brief explanation why, and then (this is key!), offer a solution. Or two.
Once you’ve given your account, pause and let the feedback flow. If they agree with your suggested solution, get started on next steps. If they want to try something else, offer to take charge of whatever you can. Apologize. Then get started with fixing.
STEP 3: APOLOGIZE TO EVERYONE AFFECTED
What you did affected people. It may not have been intentional, and maybe it wasn’t even your fault exactly, but acknowledging that you had a hand in negatively altering your colleagues’ day (or week or year) and taking full responsibility will garner their respect. All too often, we see people avoid admitting they’re wrong. By stepping up, you highlight your integrity, even in the face of adversity.
One key point: don’t keep apologizing. One (good) apology is enough, so long as you ensure whatever happened won’t happen again. To use a creepy cliché: don’t beat a dead horse. Your colleagues want to move on, and apologizing repeatedly will just make them feel like you’re seeking comfort and encouragement when you don’t deserve it. That brings us to the next step:
STEP 4: REBUILD YOUR CRED
After you’ve successfully put a recovery plan in place and any chaos dies down, it’s time to approach your boss and begin rebuilding your office reputation. Set up a meeting to address what happened and how you’ll prevent it from happening again. Ask her where you stand and what you can do to rebuild after your mistake.
What you did affected people. It may not have been intentional, and maybe it wasn’t even your fault exactly, but acknowledging that you had a hand in negatively affecting your colleagues and taking full responsibility will garner their respect.
Understandably, your boss might not give you big responsibilities immediately. This is a period where you should offer to take on smaller projects when applicable and treat them with the same care you’d treat larger assignments. Those little successes will add up and prove to your boss (and team) that you’re dedicated to a full recovery.
STEP 5: FORGIVE YOURSELF
When your mistakes directly and negatively affect those around you, it’s key to focus on them first and to make sure that their day-to-day gets back in order as quickly as possible. Once the drama ends and your colleagues have moved on with their lives though, it’s time to go internal.
Chances are you’re still stinging from the mortification of your mistake. Maybe you’re questioning your capabilities. Now’s the time to ask yourself, truly, why the mistake happened. Were you just too careless? Did you get lazy because you were feeling bored with the routine?
Once you determine what actually caused you to do what you did, consider how you’ll learn from it. And once you’ve determined how to grow from the experience? Let yourself off the hook. Tomorrow’s a new day.
Have you ever made a huge mistake at work? How did you handle it?