Leadership and career

The Fastest Way to Recover After Screwing Up at Work

By February 19, 2016 No Comments

You goofed.  You blew it.  You really stepped in it this time.  Possibly the biggest, messiest, career-limiting move EVER, right?

Or maybe it’s not quite so bad.  Probably feels like it, though.

Cheer up.  Next week, the spotlight of shame will be on someone else. In the meantime, let’s see what we can do to get you out of this, OK?

If you’ve messed up, others will probably be affected by it.  So the longer you wait to ‘fess up, the longer it will take to fix it.  So go tell the people you need to tell.  Now.

Resist the urge to patch things up without alerting concerned parties. The scope of the damage you’ve done may be beyond your knowledge, so telling key players is a critical for “containment.”

And when you tell all, be honest.  If you forgot to do something, admit it.  If you got overwhelmed by a too-big task, explain that as a way to indicate you gave it your best effort. Save the excuses and be clear about what transpired.  Your role in the bungle will seem bigger if you play dumb about how it happened.

Register an earnest apology to all concerned.  This reveals your integrity and shows you care about your team’s goals and efforts. Don’t let your pride interfere with making this important step.

Dwell on the solution.  As quickly as is practical, have some fixes ready to offer around.  Don’t be the employee who brings only problems to the boss – bring the solutions, too.  Your “problem-solving ability” is part of why you were hired in the first place, remember?  For good measure, come up with multiple solutions for the mess you made. And have answers prepared for the questions your boss might ask you.

And now, forgive yourself.  Yes, this is the touchy-feely part my advice for the day.  We all make mistakes.  It happens, so don’t dwell on it.  Any of the great achievers that you look up to have made mistakes too.  It’s all part of the process, grasshopper.

Reflect on your error.  Did you learn something? Make yourself a personal case study about what happened, and use it as your roadmap to avoid similar situations in the future.  If you’re familiar with the “5 Whys,” employ the technique to get to the bottom of whatever underlying problem caused you to screw up in the first place.  Read more here about using the 5 Whys as a way to explore cause and effect.

Finally, get back on that horse!  Show everyone you’re ready to get back to work.  And for good measure, go above and beyond.  That might be volunteering to do the task no one else wants to do or devoting significant extra time to getting up to speed on a new skill.  The reputation you’re trying to (re)build is that you’re reliable, conscientious and trustworthy.

Remember – you have the power to use this situation, ultimately, for the good.  Learn these techniques and learn from your mistakes so that you don’t repeat them.


Maurice GilbertMaurice Gilbert is Managing Partner of Conselium Executive Search, which specializes in placing Compliance Officers and Legal Counsel for clients in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific.  Maurice is also CEO of Corporate Compliance Insights, a worldwide publication devoted to governance, risk and compliance issues. Maurice can be reached at maurice@conselium.com or maurice@corporatecomplianceinsights.com.

Published by Conselium Executive Search, the global leader in compliance search.  

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