Recovering From Mistakes

What to do when you goof

Oops, you just made a mistake! You forgot to go to a meeting--or you went to the wrong place, at the wrong time, even on the wrong day. Or you suddenly realized you made a wrong assumption for a calculation. Or you hit "Send" too quickly on the e-mail before you attached that document. You feel terrible. You are really stressed.

IMAGE: STEVE COLE/GETTY IMAGES

What are you going to do? Count to 10? Hide under your desk? Hey, we all make mistakes. The key is to recover from mistakes quickly and effectively, and then try to minimize their recurrence.

Don't think you're alone. I've made my share of doozies, and I'm not done yet. Here's an example: one day I was eating lunch at my desk trying to catch up on some important things. Suddenly, in midbite of my sandwich, I had an awful thought: I was supposed to meet Rosemary for lunch to discuss the project! Oh no! I quickly called the company dining room where we were to meet, but she had already left. I was told she had sat by herself for an hour waiting for me, looking very uncomfortable, before leaving. Our lunch meeting had completely slipped my mind.

What to do? My first reaction was understandable: panic! I had stood up a close friend who was also overseeing my project, embarrassing her in front of other executives. I would be shot at sunrise, if not sooner. I had to make amends fast, so--this was pre-cellphone--I went to her office as quickly as I could, only to find out that she had gone to a meeting. I thought for a moment, went downstairs and bought flowers, and left them on her desk with a "Please forgive me!" note.

Later she called to say how angry she was, but she forgave me because I had an explanation...and the flowers were so thoughtful! "Thank you!" she beamed over the phone. But a not-so-hidden subtext was "Just don't let it ever happen again."

While these things do happen to everyone, knowing that doesn't help when you've just goofed and your world seems to be coming to an end. The best way to handle things when you make a mistake is to treat it like an accident involving people who were injured. Do a mental triage to assess how serious the mistake is, the people it affects, and how soon it needs to get fixed. Try to keep things in perspective, but, of course, act fast if it's a serious boo-boo.

For every mistake, take some action immediately. This is counterintuitive to your wishful thinking to wait and see if the mistake somehow corrects itself. It won't. Notify someone ASAP. If nothing else, the sooner you contact someone involved with the situation and alert that person to the problem, the quicker you can resolve it. And you will feel better right away. If you do not act quickly, and put off tending to the problem, it will only make you feel more stressed, and the problem could get bigger with the passing of time.

Be ready to admit fault with a hearty mea culpa if it was your mistake. Don't try to put the blame on other people, even if their actions (or inactions) might have contributed to the situation. Take responsibility and move on to doing any damage control that is needed.

Develop a plan of action to fix the mistake. Every situation is different. Determine quickly what steps you can take to resolve things. Who needs to know? What can you do to get things back on track? Ask key people affected by the mistake what they would do; it will get them to buy in. Then act!

I once chaired several technical tours at a conference that went to local transportation facilities. When the groups returned from their visits, I held a meeting with the tour leaders to see how things went. One of the leaders, Mike, said his tour went great, but noted casually that one person hadn't shown up for the bus to return to the hotel. He didn't know where this man was; Mike assumed he got back to the hotel okay.

I was livid! What a potentially serious mistake! We all instantly coordinated what each of us would do--call people at the tour stops, search the conference area--to locate this person, who finally did turn up in the hotel lobby after having gotten back safely by taxi. Mike's mistake was resolved within a half hour with no harm, but caused us to debrief our procedures very carefully.

Figuring out why you goofed is as important as getting it fixed. "Learn from your mistakes" may be a truism, but it's still good advice. So when the dust settles, determine why you goofed and what you've learned from the experience and fix whatever caused the problem.

So how do you avoid or minimize mistakes? Find out what you're prone to doing, and then develop ways that work for you. If you missed a meeting and it wasn't the first time, improve your ways of keeping track of appointments; get a backup calendar and a PDA. At the start of the workweek as well as of each day, review the things you need to do so your subconscious brain can help you remember.

If you normally send e-mail too quickly, without checking the spelling or attaching the document, then try to pause before sending e-mail and take one more minute to go over it a last time.

Above all, don't be too angry with yourself when you err. Give yourself permission to say: "What an idiot I am! How could I be so stupid! I should have known that!" (I sometimes use stronger language!) It does help to vent a bit, so be angry with yourself for a moment; then it's time to move on. I learned an appropriate saying from my therapist a long time ago: "Don't should on yourself!"

Don't stress over all the dumb mistakes you made in the past or sweat about all those that you will inevitably make in the future. Sure, try to improve your work habits and keep errors to a minimum. But when you do goof--and you surely will!--learn to recover quickly and fix your mistakes, showing that you are a responsible and dependable professional. As your career develops and you mature and gain more responsibility in your job, you'll find yourself more deliberate in how you do your work and better prepared to take action whenever you make a mistake.

About the Author

Contributing Editor CARL SELINGER, an aviation and transportation engineer, has given his seminar on the soft nontechnical skills, "Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School," throughout the United States. His book of the same title has been published by Wiley-IEEE Press; more information is available at http://www.carlselinger.com/seminars.html.

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