You've just realized you've screwed up, and there is no hiding this one. Your heart is pounding—your palms are starting to sweat—you suddenly lost your appetite. Maybe you realized you never ordered the telecom equipment to be at your new office that opens on Monday. Or maybe you just caused your main shipping hub to lose network connectivity during crunch time. Maybe the software vendor you committed to went under. Whatever the case may be, how you handle your mistake will determine if the error is fatal, or if a "reboot" will fix the problem. Like anything else, there are right ways and wrong ways to handle the situation.
Fatal error or a reboot?
Wrong way: Deny responsibility. At best, this approach will result in making you defensive. Worse, you can lose all of your credibility if someone can prove you were responsible for the mistake. I've personally witnessed a moderate mistake made by a coworker that lead to his termination because he made matters much worse by denying responsibility for his error. The programmer was directly asked whether or not he did something to cause a major system outage, and he denied any responsibility. Our system administrators spent hours trying to uncover the cause of the problem. Once they discovered the cause of the outage and were able to prove that it was, in fact, the fault of the programmer (proving this was as easy as checking the history file on our UNIX system), it was too late to apologize. What could have been a minor blunder led to his dismissal.
Managers are susceptible to this as well. Few things are as pathetic as watching an upper-level manager assign blame for his mistake to someone else. When the rest of the department catches on to this lack of character, it usually results in a major blow to the manager's credibility.
Right way: Admit your guilt. Although initially painful, it is the best approach in the long run. Your coworkers or staff will have much more respect for you as a result. It's also the first step towards learning from your error. Dealing with the mistake appropriately requires courage, but it shows your organization that you have the integrity required to be a leader. You may wonder if the mistake will cost you your career, but most organizations can differentiate between incompetence and a mistake.
Wrong way: Pull a disappearing act and stay out of site until the smoke clears.
Right way: Inform the people who need to know. Consider the people who are affected by the mistake: customers, end users, or managers, for example. The sooner you explain the issue to these stakeholders, the more understanding they will be. It is better for them to hear about the problem from you personally than from another source. Some of the best working relationships I've known have been forged out of intense, negative situations where communication and cooperation were the building blocks.
Wrong way: Let your emotions get the best of you and lead you to a knee-jerk reaction.
Right way: Keep your cool so that you can figure out the best way to recover from the error. Think about what you can do to quickly stop the bleeding that your company or customers may experience as a result of this. Don't say or do something that will make matters worse. Good leaders regroup, step up, and take appropriate action.
Wrong way: Paralysis by analysis. Inaction can be just as costly as overreaction.
Right way: Gather your thoughts, think about what you need to do, and most importantly, do it. Follow through on what needs to be done to get back on track.
The most important thing to remember is to make sure you gain from the experience. No one wants to learn the hard way, but I have learned more from my mistakes than from watching or reading about others. Mistakes are an inevitable part of life, so you better learn the right way to deal with them.
Reflect on what caused the mistake and what you need to do to prevent it from happening the next time. Human nature may be to put this out of your mind and move on, but that will leave you open to making a similar mistake in another situation. You will learn nothing by ignoring the unpleasant experience. Get out of your comfort zone and write down what you need to do to improve. Most importantly, follow through on the changes.
Your reaction to your errors will be noticed by others around you, so make sure you do the right thing. Even the best leaders make mistakes. What makes them great is their ability to learn from their mistakes and grow from them.