Thursday, February 5

How to Handle a Mistake at Work

Even if you didn't watch the Superbowl, I'm sure by now you've read or heard about the Seattle Seahawks' coach Pete Carroll's costly mistake in the final seconds of last weekend's championship game.  The gist of it is that, instead of calling a safe running play, Carroll called a riskier passing play that was intercepted by New England Patriots rookie Malcolm Butler.  The Patriots gained possession and won the game.  Since then, Carroll has been under fire for making a costly mistake on an international platform.
Ouch.  Regardless of which team you support (if any), it is hard not to feel his pain.  Making mistakes at work, big or small, can be the source of much stress and turmoil.

These work mistakes seem to fall into two broad categories: job-related errors and faux pas.  The job-related errors are painful.  You send the report to the wrong client.  You miss an important meeting or deadline.  You misinterpret data and broadcast your wrong conclusion at a meeting with colleagues.  The moment you realize your mistake, you feel stupid, embarrassed, and awkward.  You may start to fear that everyone thinks you aren't right for your job. 

The awkward, social mistakes we make aren't any less painful.  Your boss walks by your office the moment you are on the phone giving your friend animated advice about how to tell her mother-in-law to mind her own business.  You forget to invite a co-worker out for happy hour, only to see him walk by the bar a half hour later raising an eyebrow at the crowd of familiar colleagues that you have amassed.  You hit "reply all" instead of "reply" with a snarky comment about the timing of an upcoming meeting, accidentally alerting the entire working group to your annoyance at yet another 6:00pm Friday meeting.  Again, you feel stupid, embarrassed, and fearful.

So what are you to do?  Fake a conference call and lock yourself in your office?  Pretend nothing happened and move on?  Regardless of the type of mistake, you know the answer.  The most direct approach is always the best route.  Get out in front of the error and admit fault as soon as possible.  Own it.  Do not pretend it didn't happen (if you noticed it, there is a 100% chance everyone else did too).  Genuinely apologize, explain yourself, don't make excuses, and admit that you will need to do better.  Remember that finding peace and harmony at work is all about your connections. Reaching out to make that initial connection with the aggrieved party (or parties) after you mess up may be painful, but it's necessary and the sooner, the better.  You will be surprised how quickly your mistake blows over once you address it with integrity.  

If you need inspiration, watch the first few minutes of Matt Lauer's interview with Pete Carroll.  There are 100 different ways he could have spun his error, but notice how his willingness to openly discuss his role with honesty and humility adds to his credibility as a valued coach.

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