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What to Do When You Really Screw Up at Work

Screwing up at work is embarrassing, but it doesn’t have to derail your professional reputation

Maybe you sent a confidential email to the wrong client, missed a deadline, or accidentally double-booked meetings. Whatever the mistake, making an error at work is an inevitable part of life. Most of the time, simple mistakes are easy to fix – but what happens when you make a blunder so egregious that your professional reputation is at stake?

If that’s you, take a deep breath. While you might be feeling foolish, embarrassed, or even scared, know that how you handle the situation is just as important as the mistake itself. You can bounce back from a big mistake (a huge one, even) if you take ownership of the situation and handle it with grace and class.

Here’s the foolproof five-step plan to making things right.

1. Accept the bad feelings

It’s completely natural to feel utterly overwhelmed in response to a screw up. First, there’s the horrible realization that something is amiss. Then, panic sets in when you realize the full impact this will have on you and others. Finally, embarrassment and fear take root as you think about the reaction from your coworkers, clients, and employer.

While these feelings are normal and natural, try not to let yourself wallow in despair for more than a few minutes. Accept the painful emotions as they come, and then allow them to pass. No matter what the situation is, drowning in sorrow won’t help you create solutions.

Don’t get stuck in a loop of self-blame and shame. Accept that you’ve made a mistake, and dive into corrective action with a positive mind-set.

2. Take responsibility

The best thing to do when you royally screw up is to acknowledge it – nothing looks worse than trying to pass the blame to someone else. Don’t make excuses or hide behind white lies. Be clear, direct, and humble. “I made a mistake, and I am putting all my effort into solutions A, B, and C.”

You don’t have to fall over yourself apologizing either. Say your piece, own your responsibility, and lay out your plan of action for solving the problem.

3. Create an action plan

The truth is that your associates will be far more interested in how you’re going to fix the problem than how it happened in the first place. Therefore, it’s essential that you shift the conversation away from “How did this happen?” to “What’s the next step?”

Create a plan to resolve the issue. Did you damage a client relationship? Get them on the phone right away to smooth things over. Doubled your merchandise order? Lay out the steps for how to get it corrected with the supplier.

Whatever the case may be, let go of feeling bad, and put that energy to use creating the perfect action plan.

4. Follow through to earn back trust

Big mistakes don’t have to derail your career. If you consistently deliver great work with a good attitude, an occasional slipup won’t ruin you. When people know that you work hard and pay attention to detail, they’ll be much more willing to forgive your mistake given your stellar track record.

When you do mess up, follow through on your action plan to correct the situation and earn back trust. In the end, your overall work performance will have a much greater impact on your professional reputation than one isolated incident. After all, you’re only human – and most of us can forgive and forget a mistake if it’s not a repeat occurrence.

5. Look back, and try to learn something

When the dust settles, you might be tempted to shove this painful memory to the recesses of your mind, never to be brought out again. Tempting as it is, don’t give in to the impulse to bury your mistake. Not only will that give you a repressed sense of shame, it takes away your opportunity to learn from your mistake.

So, take some time to ponder the situation that led up to your error. Was it a procedural error, one where you need to shore up holes in your processes to ensure it doesn’t happen again? Or was it simply a matter of distraction? Do you need to take on less responsibility to make sure things aren’t slipping through the cracks?

Whatever the case may be, this is a crucial part of recovery. Identify key areas of improvement or ways to prevent this from happening again, and suddenly it’s not a mistake – it’s a learning experience.

If you would like to learn how to become unstoppable like Gigi and find out how to get beyond your limits and fears to really start living with fulfillment, contact her today.

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