By Alyssa Gregory

$#?%*! What To Do When You Mess Up

By Alyssa Gregory

crumpled paperMistakes are inevitable. Whatever you do and no matter how good you are at what you do, you will eventually mess up. You’ll recover from it and put it behind you, but it will happen again. It may not be for a long time, but through the course of your career, you will have at least a handful of smudges on your record.

No one likes making mistakes, but it’s part of a meaningful life experience…and as much as they stink, every mistake teaches us a valuable lesson, if we choose to learn it.

The good news is that it’s not the mistakes that define you; it’s how you handle them. So while the missteps you make may be unanticipated, unplanned and unwanted, you can regain some control by responding in a positive way and preventing one isolated mistake from turning into a full-blown disaster.

Here are some things you may want to do the next time you make a mistake.

Be Accountable

One of the worst things you can do when you make a mistake is point a finger at someone else. Not only does this make you look like you’re skirting your responsibility, but deflecting ownership of a mistake will put someone else undeservedly in the hot seat. It also puts the brakes on resolving the problem because the source of the issue (you) is now out of the loop. This essentially worsens the impact of the mistake.

As soon as an error is brought to your attention, accept your responsibility in the situation, whether it could have been avoided or not. Then start to look into it and what needs to be done to rectify the situation.

Avoid Making Excuses

Even if you have a solid reason for the mistake, it doesn’t take away the fact that you made the mistake to begin with and any ramifications it may have had on others involved are not erasable. Offering up justification is just like assigning the blame to someone else, prolonging the situation and not solving anything.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t provide background on why the blunder occurred when necessary, but don’t let the reasoning be your primary method for acknowledging the mistake.

Fix It

Once you’ve acknowledged the mistake and have taken ownership of the situation, it’s time to fix it. Make it a top priority and do it immediately. If other people played a role in causing the slip-up, you will need to rally the troops to work on the resolution. The key is to make it right as quickly as possible.

Learn From It

It’s not enough to fix the mistake, though. You should take time to examine the cause, the impact it had, and how the same mistake can be avoided in the future. And keep in mind that every mistake is a valuable opportunity for self-improvement. Embrace the lesson learned, let it make you better at doing something and apply it going forward.

Move On

The mistake has been made, acknowledged, fixed and learned from, but if you have any desire for perfectionism lurking in your psyche (like I do) then it may be hard to move past the mistake and get on with life. Realize that mistakes are inevitable and underneath it all they really can be beneficial. And you’re human…just let it go.

How do you rebound after making a mistake?

Image credit: Jarpur

  • likethegoddess

    Well done article, Alyssa. You’ve picked a good topic and I think you’ve covered it well.

    The steps you’ve outlined definitely contribute to rebounding. Another thing is creating an improved process to address any “holes” that might allow a similar mistake to happen in the future.

    There’s one bit I’d like to add that might seem obvious: recognizing you’ve made a mistake. Sometimes, it’s very obvious you’ve made a mistake. Other times, it can be more challenging to find. Still, a mistake can still be a mistake if no one sees it.

    My point would be to maintain a critical view of your own work. Look objectively at what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Keep informed about the best ways to accomplish tasks in your particular discipline. It’s hard to know what you don’t know, if you know what I mean.

    In the end, you are in the best position to catch and correct your own mistakes.

  • ideamarket

    I screwed up just a couple days ago and I think one of the key points you brought up is the need to act quickly. I fixed what I could, but when I saw there was nothing more I could do, I immediately called the client and explained what happened and detailed what we had to do to fix the rest. They were totally understanding and basically just laughed it off. I doubt it would have gone this way had I delayed or tried to cover it up or blame someone else. Thanks again for another great article!

  • There’s always a lesson to learn, and in the case of my biggest mistake, the lesson was to make sure to test, test, and re-test forms that depend on very strict input validation.

  • wwb_99

    A few key words “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”

  • Anonymous

    Another thing to add, is that there are many reasons for making mistakes. One I have found is that you are learning new things or working on a new type of project. It is very embarassing, however the lessons you can learn are usually very valuable.

  • Cardenus

    I’m so paranoid about making certain mistakes that I double, some times triple-or more check my work, especially if I’m about to delete a bunch of records from a database. I’m finding clients will want you to delete a whole lot of data, and then suddenly want it back before you know it, woops. I finally decided it would be good to make special backups before we delete anything.

  • mark

    great article. Totally agree the concept being positive and accountable. even if it is not your mistake but because the client does not understand the subject. for example once a client became angery when he saw a scroll on his website, because his browser resolution is lower than the design. Without asking the reason, he just shout out: what you did was rubbish!
    when you face this kind of situation you have to be positive and professional.

  • Yup we all screw up once in a while.

    For me the most important rule is:
    Stop what you’re doing and breath…
    Figure out what went wrong and decide what to do about it.
    Then do it : )

  • amado

    I think also another important technique is NOT to ignore little mistakes. The little signs that tell you something is not right. Sometimes we take risks and ignore the cues. Learning to recognize signs of approaching disaster is also very important.

  • I work with troubled kids, and these are some of the major points we reiterate with them on a daily (sometimes minute-ly) basis — own up, man up, fix it if you can, learn from it, move on. It’s good advice anywhere. My kids are in many ways a mirror of the larger problems in society: they are incredibly quick to point fingers at someone else for their errors, or to try to distract from their error by pointing at someone else’s problems. I’ve found that people are often so surprised (and pleased) when I own up to my mistakes that they actually trust me more after the goof than before — so often when someone makes an error their first and foremost priority is to make sure they themselves get none of the blame. Wrong, wrong, dead wrong.

  • We’re seeing a demonstration right now in the USA with the Palin/Letterman dustup. He screwed up by making nasty jokes about her daughter(s). She screwed up by exploiting the absolute h#ll out of it for political gain. His supporters point to her exploitation as a way to avoid responsibility for his ugly “humor.” Her supporters point to his failure to prostrate himself before the cameras and beg forgiveness as justification for their continued exploitation. Both sides look like panderers and jerks, and neither one seems to realize that a short, sincere owning-up would have bought them far more in credibility than the flailing and thrashing they’re both doing.

  • Dorsey

    Through no fault of our own, we had an SSL certificate issue at a very bad time for several of our customers that in turn impacted many of their customers through our online registration service. The instant we learned of the problem, we contacted our customers and explained to them what had happened and warned them of the possible consequences to their customers. We also requested their consent to contact their affected customers directly and explain what happened and how we’d resolve it. At no time did we “pass the buck” to those truly at fault (our hosting service).

    The response was overwhelming. Our customers thanked us profusely for getting ahead of the issue, and their customers expressed appreciation and understanding that no harm was done and for us letting them know that the problem was not of their doing and that everything was under control.

    Since then, our relationship with our customers has continued to improve because our credibility has gone through the roof.

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