After Hours

10 things you should do if you make a big mistake

We may mess up sometimes in our work, and the mistake we make could be a major one. But even a big mistake can be rectified, with damage brought under control and the lessons learned prompting improved processes and safeguards. Calvin Sun offers a list of measures to take when you've goofed up in a big way and all you want to do is run away and hide.

Who can forget Leon Lett, Thanksgiving 1993, and the football game between Miami and Dallas? In the closing seconds of that game, played during a sleet storm, Dallas held a tenuous 14-13 lead. Miami had the ball and was attempting a field goal that could put them ahead and win the game. Dallas blocked the kick, but only partially, and the ball landed on the ground beyond the line of scrimmage.

At that point, Dallas didn't need to do anything at all. Time could have run out as the ball rolled on the ground, giving Dallas the win. Or Dallas would have taken over the ball on downs and simply kneeled down once or twice to run out the clock. Inexplicably, though, Dallas player Leon Lett went after the ball, slipped, and made contact with it. With the ball now live and in play, Miami recovered, attempted another field goal, and won the game. Lett's mistake turned certain victory into defeat.We may mess up sometimes in our work.

The mistake we make, unfortunately, could be a major one. Mine never occurred on national television but nonetheless had serious repercussions. In a previous job, I helped develop a software system for a state transportation department. As a security officer, I had full authority to all files (both production and test, in different libraries) on the machine we were using.

One day, while I was performing SQL queries and insertions, the telephone rang. Users were telling us that a production table had bad data, and when we looked, we discovered that that table had exactly the same contents as our test file. Even worse, our review of the journal entries for that file showed that my user profile was associated with the insertion of that data. We fixed the problem, but believe me it was an experience I will long remember.

As you can see, I'm qualified to talk about handling mistakes. I hope you never find yourself in a similar situation, but if you do, here are some measures you should take.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: If possible, come up with a plan to fix the problem

Don't just walk away and wash your hands of the situation. True, other people might have to be involved in solving the problem. However, if you caused the problem, you are responsible for coming up with the plan to resolve it. The plan needs to address the actions that need to occur, the people who need to take them, and the amount of time you think the actions will take. The people involved most likely will be the boss, your co-workers, and any internal or external customers affected by the mistake.

#2: Come clean with your boss

Trying to cover things up rarely works. If and when your boss finds out, say, from someone else (worst of all from your boss' boss), things will be even worse for you. In this kind of situation, it's important that you be in control of the message. So as hard as it will be, you should summon up your strength, take a deep breath, and go talk to your boss.

#3: Let the boss know about that plan

In this situation, and in fact at any other time, never to go to the boss with just a problem. Go with a solution as well. In this case, go with the plan you developed and show the boss that, to at least some degree, you're in control.

#4: Tell the affected parties

Let those affected by your mistake know what happened, but spare the technical details for now. Instead, focus on how the situation affects them: what limitations are in place, what functions are unavailable, and how long these limitations and lack of function are expected to last. Most important, offer any workarounds you can. Ask for their suggestions as well. If the mistake involves a system outage, perhaps some veteran techs can remember what they did in the old days, before that system was in place. If you have to and can do so, think about calling retirees for their ideas.

#5: Don't blame others

You're no longer in grade school. Trying to blame other people makes you look unprofessional, diminishing the opinion that others have of you. Conversely (and paradoxically), taking responsibility and admitting your mistake can win you respect. Your co-workers might end up thinking, "You know, even though [your name] messed up, it took a lot of character to admit it. [Your name] is a real stand-up person, and someone who can be counted on."

#6: Stop looking back

Learning from the past can help prevent repeat mistakes. However, don't confuse learning from the past with dwelling on the past. The latter involves endless self-recrimination and often self-pity, neither of which helps resolve the situation. If you find yourself dwelling on the mistake in this manner, stop it right now and read the next tip.

#7: Prepare and issue a "lessons learned" document

"Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it." "As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly." Maybe you've heard these or similar sayings. Their point is clear: We need to understand the mistake we made so that we can avoid it in the future. Documenting the mistake, and the steps taken to resolve it, are key in this regard. In doing so, be sure to cover the conditions that led to the mistake, the steps taken to correct it, and the measures taken to prevent its recurrence.

In my example of the bad SQL table, I ended up not only keeping my job, but I also kept my security officer user profile. However, we created a second user profile for me, one that lacked access to production data, which I was to use for testing and development work.

#8: Apologize to those affected

Mistakes often cost others in lost time and productivity and hence frustrate them. Consequently, even if you solve the problem, the people who were affected by it might still be upset if you never acknowledge that frustration. I'm not saying you have to be an Oprah or a Dr. Phil, but taking a second to apologize will go a long way toward restoring you to good graces. By doing so, you show you appreciate what they had to go through.

#9: Determine whether the mistake can occur elsewhere

This point relates to the "lessons learned" document. Here, however, you should consider other areas of the business, or other applications. To what extent do they have the same conditions, procedures, or people that could cause them to experience the same type of problem? You might want to alert those areas. They may answer that they have more competent staff, but that's a risk you'll have to take.

#10: Put the best face possible on what happened

Everyone focuses on the negative effects of a problem. There had to be some; otherwise, it wouldn't have been a problem and wouldn't have received such scrutiny. However, can you find any good things, no matter how small, that resulted from this problem? One of the most useful concepts I've learned is that of "reframing" the situation, that is, to change the way a person looks at it. In this case, reframing the problem might take the following form:

  • Yes, a problem occurred.
  • Yes, the system was unavailable.

BUT the good news is

  • It happened during a slow time.
  • It identified issues we need to address elsewhere in other systems.

Of course, in offering these arguments, it's helpful if you can do so with a straight face.


So what happened to Leon Lett? He made two more high-visibility plays, both in Super Bowls and both against Buffalo. One hurt his team, involving a premature celebration of a recovered fumble. It cost Dallas a touchdown, but they still won. The other play, though, helped his team: He stripped a Buffalo player of the ball, and a Dallas teammate recovered it and returned it for a touchdown. Lett was also selected in 1994 and 1998 to play in the Pro Bowl. So you see, a major mistake need not be career fatal.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.


I wish to add my two cents to point #1, Come up with a plan to fix the problem. Very often, the panic drives us to quickly reverse the consequences of the mistake. Sometimes this may be the best solution, or not. I've seen cases were the best approach was to first accept the damage is partially unrecoverable, so better start thinking about from the new reality: here we are, with this thing broken and some problems arising from it; if it didn't broke due to my error, how would I have designed a solution? The rush for solving our mistake can end with another mistake made to correct the first. For instance, we may bounce a system immediatly to implement a solution, but a cooler analysis can show that the error is acceptable for a while, so we had better waited till end of day. The worst of this is that, whilst the first error may be forgiven, two in a row may hurt your reputation for the weeks coming.


I do not agree everything in the post. Many times, I have to fix my co workers mistakes. Many times they put my name to blame. Instead of pointing fingers game,it is better to fix coworkers mistakes.


He tells this story about mistakes. When Yogi took over managing the Yankees from, I believe it was Martin, he discovered 2 envelopes in his desk. One was labelled "Only open when in a losing streak" and the the second envelope was marked "Only open when in the second losing streak". Sure enough it wasn't long before the owner was barking at Berra because the team had lost 3 games in a row. Yogi went and opened that first envelope and it was a letter from George Martin saying simply, "Blame it all on me." Yogi went and explained that he hadn't had the time to fully optimize the team, change it from the previous manager's ways and adopted all the changes that he wanted to make. That seemed to mollify George Steinbrenner. A couple weeks later and the team loses 3 in a row again and Yogi is being called into a meeting with the owner. Before he goes to that meeting he rips open the second envelope and Martin has written simply, "Make up 2 envelopes for the next guy." The lesson from this is that we need to learn from our mistakes and ensure we don't repeat them.


When at a customer's site and you make a big mistake (or even a small mistake), I've been advised never say: "Oh Shit!". It you do, it sends out an instant alarm to everyone, and a message that you don't know what you are doing (which is probably more alarming to everyone now that you made a big mistake and have to come up with a solution). Instead, say: "Interesting..." and then take a deep breath. Get up and walk away if possible. This is important and I've learned usually gives you a little time to think of what the right thing to do next might be.


I would like to avoid all kind of mistakes with my pc in the future, even if it is very good to know how this can be done, when I would like to use my pc to what this is made for, and not to make it crash or anything else.


He never recovered from the 4 Garbage Bags of Pot the police found in his car. That pretty much sealed the deal.


Suggestion #11: try to involve the effected people in the solution. If they're sitting around doing nothing, they're going to be mad. If you involve them, they feel like they're helping fix things and they're less likely to be mad at you. I saw the most unusual touchdown ever, on some highlights show. Background: this happened probably in the 1970s I think, during a game between Minnesota and Detroit, on a field goal attempt. The rules were different back then: if you tried a field goal and missed, it resulted either in a touchback (if the ball reached the end zone) or the other team took over WHERE THE BALL WAS BLOWN DEAD (like a punt). The Minnesota kicker tried a field goal, but it was blocked (just like in this article). The ball kept rolling toward the Detroit end zone, and was about to go into the end zone. Minnesota would like to down the ball before it gets there, while Detroit wants the ball to actually go in. A Detroit player blocks the Minnesota center to keep him from downing the ball (I think the center at that time was Mick Tinglehoff ?sp?)). But in making the block, the Detroit player touches the ball, which continues into the end zone and stops. Because he touched the ball, it's now "live." Everyone is standing around looking at each other, then a Minnesota player, safety Paul Krause ?sp? - a great player as I recall- rushes in, pushes people aside and falls on the ball. The official looks down, looks up and signals touchdown. That Detroit player was the early version of Leon Lett.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Hi, thanks for your post. I'm wondering if, rather than disagreeing with the points, you're actually raising a different but nonetheless valid point: namely, how to handle those situations in which you personally are blameless, but where you (unfairly) get the blame. lol sounds like I'm hitting a nerve here. The article didn't cover this point, but I can address it briefly: be sure you document everything you do. When you talk to your boss, show whatever evidence you can. However, I advise against statements such as "I didn't do it" or "[name of co-worker] did it." Instead, show the evidence, tell the boss "here's what happened" (and let your boss figure out who did what) and then work to solve the problem.


I applied yor suggestion in my work place and it really work.SO a hug for you thanks

SW Developer and PM
SW Developer and PM

I still remember that premature touchdown celebration, and the Buffalo player who chased him down, I believe, was Don Beebe. The field goal thing against Miami seems more like a coaching problem, preparing players for the different "special rule" scenarios. Or maybe Lett was too stoned when the coaches covered that scenario, so it really was all on Lett. I suppose his "Lessons Learned" document would be to not get high on pot before a game.


Have to agree with a lot of what is said. Basicly : Take responsibility and take control. One caveat though : If you dont know what you are doing then dont ever try bluffing your way through. And that applies BEFORE the mistake was made. We have all seen the 'This was Fred's fault' email to the boss that has been copied to everyone. The fact that Fred was honest enough to admit to his 'part' in a catalog of errors is to his credit. Any half good boss will recognise this and will already know that the issuer of the 'blame him and tell everyone' email may also have something to hide.

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