Education

Coping with a screw-up


At some point, everyone steps on a landmine on the job.  Things are going along fine, and then out of the blue, you realize you just did something which makes you feel like a total amateur. 

What then occurs can range from being fired to simply being scolded. How you respond to your mistake can make a big difference to your sense of confidence. Often it impacts whether you'll move forward in your job momentum, or if you let the screw-up become a career derailer.  No one wants to be on the receiving end of criticism, but when you mess up there is a lot to be gained if you can handle the comments professionally and try to be objective about them.   Regardless of whether the criticism is constructive, it's very important that you face the situation well.  People will be watching . How effectively you respond will have an impact on your professional growth and ultimate success. 

In case you hit a banana peel yourself, here are 6 tips for coping with a screw-up:

  1. Listen to the criticism.  Though you may feel hurt, try to see past your emotions to the task at hand. Remember the old adage that "there's no crying in baseball" - likewise at the workplace.
  2. Don't become defensive. Show that you are trying to understand the criticism and ask questions to ensure you get what's being said.  Make it clear that you want to do what's needed to rectify the situation.
  3. If you did something wrong - admit it.  People respect others who show that they are mature enough to know that they made a mistake.  It shows professionalism.  I've had HR execs say to me that they won't hire individuals who can't tell them of a mistake or two they'd made earlier.
  4. If you notice the problem before the boss - tell her/him first.  If you have a solution to the problem, try to implement it first; but if that's not possible - tell the boss what the hassle is and provide the solution at the same time.
  5. Shrug off criticism. Dwelling on screw ups makes you less productive and impacts your own sense of self worth.  It can make you negative and less valuable to the organization.  People will be less welcoming as a result.
  6. Review. Get together with colleagues to discuss what happened and get their assessments.  Often, what it felt like to you will be very different from what they saw or understand because they can be more objective.

Many very successful individuals have careers built on failures or screw-ups. Learning from them, they got up, brushed themselves off, and moved ahead confident that they'd never make that mistake again.  You can too.

                                                                              - john

                                                                             career coach
 

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

20 comments
slipperywhale
slipperywhale

hmmm. all a bit close to the bone here! advice all sounds very good. i'm having a little break from having somehow mislaid 6 months of accounting data from a SQL7 database where the hard drive on the server failed (mechanically, cyclic reducancy check error)... and backups apparently didn't work properly and... oh dear... it's not very good. but managed to get data back off the drive, except for one of the files in the _backup folder which couldn't be read... hmm. will try to follow your advice. but interestingly, in the middle of the 'crisis' (have to keep sense of proportion here) it is curiously annoying having managers attempt to probe for the cause of the problem and who made a mistake etc. when you are still the middle of trying to solve it, and would rather get on with that and deal with the lessons to be learned later... incidentally, does anyone know how i can get the mdf and ldf files back into SQL7 so i can export then and get them running the newly installed SQL2000? might ask that on another forum though... byeeeeeee

NOW LEFT TR
NOW LEFT TR

byeeeeeee

slipperywhale
slipperywhale

do you know about the issue? might have got the mdf/ldf reattached... and maybe have the backup run, all quite odd. are you available for questions about this? if so, d'you have an email? (it's for charity! (www.redr.org/london)).

mark.black
mark.black

I do not make mistakes and have not for the last 20 years. During that time though I have had on heck of a lot of "Learning Experiences". It is all about how you focus on these situations. By thinking instead of these little hic-ups as a Learning Experience rather than a Mistake it forces a positive outlook rather than a negative one.

thador
thador

I was in a situation once where I was accused of making a severe mistake, but the truth of the matter was an ill-defined part of my job. My "mistake" was part of my job that I didn't even know existed. The mistake marked me for the rest of the short time I was there, despite the fact that I explained that the duties were not described to me properly.

Why Me Worry?
Why Me Worry?

as if I wrote the damned thing and it was my fault the server crashed when I was performing routine maintenance on it. Call it coicidence, but this nasty bug, introduced by the O/S vendor, decided to rear its ugly head when I was working on the server, making it appear that I crashed it. I tried every which way to explain the problem to the ignorant non-technical IT director at the company I worked for, but he basically needed a fall guy to take the blame away from him. He wasn't being personally blamed for it, but one of the senior partners was giving him a lot of flack about it. I can understand how the situation disrupted workflow and made IT look bad, but the blame should be on the O/S manufacturer, not on me personally. I am not a programmer, I didn't write the damned thing, so how am I to blame for an unpredictable bug? If I were to write the software, then yes, I am to blame and should be held accountable, but for them to point fingers at me was a strategically calculated witch-hunt to slander me in an attempt to push me out of the company.

NOW LEFT TR
NOW LEFT TR

and did you test it first on test machine?

Why Me Worry?
Why Me Worry?

and I am a happier and healthier person as a result of it. It was a lawfirm...nuff said!

NOW LEFT TR
NOW LEFT TR

so how can one be blamed for a crash. Sounds like a place that you would be better off out anyway. I guess doing such work would have been better out of hours - just in case.

Why Me Worry?
Why Me Worry?

but somehow, the resource got stuck and wouldn't budge, abending the cluster node and affecting printing. I later found out that this was a bug in the NDPS printing engine, but I've never seen this problem before until that incident.

kj7gs
kj7gs

The more training we pursue, and sometimes we just have to go on the attack and get it for ourselves, the less mistakes we make. This starts from day one, but if there is no feedback system in place, no ratings, and no milestones to concur, then how can one expect any promotions to occur? This is something I feel MUST be asked about during the interview. It's not worth the job if you start out having to bring your own noose.

thador
thador

I was in a situation once where I was accused of making a severe mistake, but the truth of the matter was an ill-defined part of my job. My "mistake" was part of my job that I didn't even know existed. The mistake marked me for the rest of the short time I was there, despite the fact that I explained that the duties were not described to me properly.

Web-Guy
Web-Guy

I find the best thing to do when I make an error is to immediately admit it and take full responsibility. This lifts a burden off of me and bosses have always been fine with this. We are human, we make mistakes.

simonhamilton1
simonhamilton1

We do not make mistakes, merely suffer the cruel consequences of calculated risk. Fix the log files and blame it on the consultants. Lord knows they deserve it and are already practiced in the art of defensive groveling.

simonhamilton1
simonhamilton1

We do not make mistakes, merely suffer the cruel consequences of calculated risk. Fix the log files and blame it on the consultants. Lord knows they deserve it and are already practiced in the art of defensive groveling.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

You are part of the reason I stopped being a consultant. Not only do you purposefully sabotage projects, but you blame the sabotage on those that are trying to make it work. Not very nice at all...

Why Me Worry?
Why Me Worry?

and other f**k ups after the company throws you out and calls us in. Blaming consultants only shows your lack of stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility for your own actions. Yes, some consultants are clueless and are worth more trouble than good, but do not lump all consultants into a single category of incompetent hired help. If you have an issue with consultants, then I suggest you not hire them, but if the time comes that you need to hire one, don't be a prick and use consultants as a doormat to wipe your feet on. We will bill you up the ass for wasting our time.

GNX
GNX

Just admit to the mistake. It is not worth having to explain the coverup of it.

devGuy
devGuy

First, be honest and admit the mistake. Do not try to defer blame, or point the finger at others. This will buy you credibility with others. Beyond admitting that you made a mistake, take responsibility for: 1. Assessing the damage. (i.e., we lost the data feed last night; we'll operate on day old data today.) 2. Repair if possible (or estimate the effort required to repair). (i.e., Tonight, we have to take additional x down time, to process yesterdays, and then today's data.) 3. Think of ways that it can be prevented in the future (may be good to enlist others' help for this). Taking all of the steps above will not only minimize the damage to your reputation (and that of your team). In the end, handling it professionaly may enhance your reputation, because other people (and other teams) can rely on you (and your team) to fix mistakes and make fewer in the future.

GSG
GSG

I know someone who not only denied everything, he tried to blame it on anyone else. 8-10 of us came in and worked an entire weekend to recover from his mistakes, racking up about 30 hours of work each. He showed up late, left early, and worked maybe 5 hours the whole weekend. Needless to say, his co-workers lost all respect for him, and we did our best to make his life miserable.

Editor's Picks