How to survive a career mishap

Every professional has been guilty of making a mistake. Small mishaps are easier to overlook, such as a typo in a document or a formatting error in a spreadsheet. Other mistakes are harder to fix, such as accidentally sharing confidential information with the wrong client or realizing you did the math on your department’s yearly budget incorrectly and it’s already in use.

Whether the mistake is large or small, the important thing is to focus on how you can recover from it. Keep in mind that, no matter the situation, your reaction to the error will play a large part in how effectively you survive the mishap. The following steps can help you to be proactive and get ahead of your mistake.

Step back and assess the situation.

This is the first step you must take when you realize you’ve made an error. This is an important step because it will help you clearly determine what you will need to do moving forward. Immediately taking a breath and a step back and assessing what happened will help you look at the situation objectively to avoid overreacting.

Take a few moments and ask yourself: How bad was your mistake? How many people will be affected by it? Can you just apologize and move on or are there very serious consequences? If you are having trouble analyzing the situation without getting emotional, ask a close friend or family member to help you (without revealing any confidential information, of course).

Processing your emotions with them first can help you become objective about the situation more quickly. And, they may even give you some great advice. The key is to not have a knee-jerk reaction. Step out of your office or take a walk outside for a moment if you need to, in order to clear your head first.

Take responsibility.

Once you have assessed the situation and determined what the next steps are to rectify it, own up to the mistake. If you determined that all that is needed is an apology, make sure it happens as soon as possible, with the right people. If you made a simple mistake, the situation may only require you to notify your team. If it was a more serious error, in most cases you will also need to inform your boss.

When speaking with them, don’t beat around the bush. Get right to it. No matter what the circumstances, when taking responsibility for your mistake it is important to be clear about what happened and avoid trying to minimize your error. It will be easier to correct the mistake if you provide accurate information from the start and offer possible solutions. Admitting to your boss, team or client that you made a serious mishap can seem scary, but they will appreciate your honesty in the long run and it will preserve your professional relationship and brand, even if their first reaction isn’t a positive one. When you offer a solution, you offer a sense of comfort that you can handle rectifying the situation.

Prepare for damage control.

This is another important step to take, and the quicker you can start damage control, the better. Are you able to fix the situation on your own? If it was just a typo, it may be as simple as sending a new copy asking the recipient to disregard the previous version of the document.

Has this mistake happened to someone else on your team before? They may be able to share helpful steps you can take to remedy the situation. If you have made a serious mishap, you will most likely need to decide on a plan of action with your boss.

If the mistake is so serious that your job could be on the line, don’t go into the meeting already assuming you will be fired. Do your best to come up with a solution (or several) before you walk into your boss’s office and decide on action steps you will take in the future to prevent the mistake from happening again.

Manage the issue.

Again, it’s important to be proactive, especially if you have made a serious error. Develop a three-month and six-month plan of action to prevent any additional backlash from your error. If the mistake was large enough that you have been put on probation, don’t passively wait for the time to pass. Use the opportunity to not just learn from your mistake but also build your resilience muscle.

Keep track of everything you do to improve the situation, and check in with your boss or team frequently to let them know what steps you are taking. This will help build trust and confidence in your abilities moving forward. Maintaining your confidence after your error, and taking responsibility for it, will help demonstrate you are resilient in difficult situations.

Don’t let your mistakes define you. Famed former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.” So don’t let making a mistake discourage you and paralyze you on your career path.

It’s important to focus on the future and identify what lessons can be learned from the situation. Determine how the mistake can help you – perhaps you need to be more cautious or detail-oriented moving forward. No matter what the mistake, remember to take what you can learn from the situation and keep moving forward.

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