What to do after you've made a mistake

How you handle a job mistake can be the critical difference between a slow career death and moving ahead. In this blog, John M McKee shares six of his favorite tips for dealing effectively with a mistake.

"John, this could be the end for me. I've done a lot of good work, but where I work there's little tolerance for screwups -- the stakes are too big. I need your advice!"

The person speaking wasn't a client; I'd actually just met him about 10 minutes before. We were at a party, he'd heard from someone that I help individuals improve their performance; and he came over to meet me. Then I got the download about his screwup. Actually, screwups.

He'd clearly experienced a "rough patch." This most recent hassle seemed to be just one in a series of problems he'd experienced. He told me that his boss was probably ready to get rid of him. He wanted to keep his job but didn't know what to do next.

Everyone, at some point, screws up. How you react afterward can be the difference between a lonely trip downhill and getting a pass for the ski lift to the big slopes. Here are 6 of my favorite tactics for dealing after you've made a mistake:

  1. Recognize that this issue doesn't mean you are a bad manager or that you're not doing a good job overall. It means you screwed up this time. Recognize the difference and vow to do better next time.  And don't aim for perfection; you'll be disappointed every time.
  2. Listen to the criticism. Get past your emotions. Then look at the task at hand. Work through the problem using the same approaches you would if someone asked you to fix a problem caused by someone else.
  3. Don't get defensive. One way or another, you've made a mistake, so make sure you understand the problem or issue. Ask questions to show that you're open to feedback. The goal is to get a better grasp on where you went wrong and what needs to be done to rectify the situation.
  4. Expect heat from others. If this is a big deal or one in a series of smaller hassles, it's likely that those affected (or your supervisor) are going to be cranky. Let them. Understand that it's part of a necessary process. Once they've "shared" with you, it will be easier for all involved to move forward. At that point, it can be smart to ask what they'd do to improve things.
  5. Be a grown-up about it and admit that you messed up. Many, perhaps most, people have difficulty admitting they've made a mistake. Those who will admit their mistakes often gain even more respect for their "objectivity." They may even get a reputation of being more emotionally mature in the face of difficulty, which is a sign of leadership.
  6. Don't dwell on this for too long. Some individuals spend forever focusing on the past. They review their mistakes over and over, trying to figure out why they did what they did. The smart ones learn from their mistakes. Then they move forward confidently. They know they're not going to do that again. Beating yourself up has a bad impact on how you regard yourself over time. That, in itself, can be career-limiting behavior.

It's my opinion that the best managers are those who've made mistakes and moved forward afterward. They are the ones who are more likely to be able to guide others effectively as a result of their own learning. When someone says they don't make mistakes, it makes me wonder if they have taken enough risks.

Here's to your future!