What to do when you screw up

Sooner or later everyone screws up. Leadership coach John M. McKee says that how you react and what you do next can either derail you or help you move up the ladder.

Every leader, at some point, screws up. Things will be going along nicely but then something unexpected happens. Suddenly you're looking up from the floor where you landed flat on your back.

What occurs at that point might range from simply being scolded to being fired.

How you respond to your mistake can make a big difference to your sense of confidence. As importantly, your response could impact whether your career continues to move forward, or if you're into a career-derailing situation.

No one wants to be on the receiving end of criticism, but when you mess up, it's another one of those "opportunities" to make lemonade out of lemons. Showing upper management that you handle their comment professionally allows them to see how you react in a difficult situation. Your style will be closely watched:

"Does she admit her problems or blame others?"

"Is he acting like a person who learns from their mistakes and won't repeat this again?"

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.

For when you hit that inevitable banana peel yourself, here are six tips for coping with a screw up:

1. Listen to the criticism. Even 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 get 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 understood. They have a different perspective and can be more objective.


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, 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...

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