So you screwed up at work. Maybe your boss is mad at you. Maybe this will even affect your chances of ever getting ahead where you are. Is your only hope now to use your life savings to buy lottery tickets — and then pray that you win?
Although this is neither a financial advice blog nor a religious blog, I’ll answer both parts of that question for you: NO!!!!!! (Well, one ticket now and then probably won’t hurt,.)
But screw-ups do happen. To all of us. And the real trick is how you handle them.
What I learned about screwing up
When I graduated from grad school, I interviewed with several major financial institutions. A senior vice president at Citibank asked me “Have you ever failed at anything?” Being young and naive, I smiled, said “no” and left it at that.
In retrospect, it would have been the perfect opportunity to bring up something that went wrong and show how I persevered and triumphed. (That’s great stuff for interviews.) The SVP looked me in the eye and said with an almost fatherly tone “That’s a real shame. The most successful people I know have one thing in common: they’ve all failed at something. It makes you stronger.”
I’ve never forgotten that. And he’s right. A lot of the most important lessons I’ve learned at work (or elsewhere) have come from things that went wrong — for me or others. So if you screwed up at work, it is definitely NOT the end of the world. Or for sure the end of that job.
Screwed up at work? What can you do?
Now I’m not advising you to run right out and screw up big time just to become successful. It doesn’t quite work that way. But if you make your best efforts — and that sometimes includes taking risks — and you wind up failing, your job is to figure out where to go from there with as much dignity as possible.
First and foremost, try not to get stuck in the whiny place. They don’t understand me. Everyone is against me. I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s all their fault. The job was too hard. (I’m sure you can add your own phrases here.) Nor will it help to self-flagellate. I’m so stupid! I can’t ever do anything right. All this is useless chatter.
Even if any or all of that is true, it’s not going to do you any good to sit and regret what didn’t happen. Your best bet is to dust yourself off and come up with an action plan that starts with an honest appraisal of what did happen and any role YOU played in the event. This is not about self blame; it’s about understanding and using that knowledge to work smarter the next time.
Why high road pays off in long run
In a previous post, I talked about Leana who was promised a raise that is now in jeopardy because she received a warning for something she did. She’s angry at her boss since she feels this isn’t fair. We can all understand how upsetting that is. But at this point, she has no control over whether they actually give her the raise. All she can control is how she reacts going forward.
It will help Leana now and in the rest of her career to take the high road. She needs to step back and try to honestly see any role she played in this organizational dynamic. This is not only about the mistake she made that got her a warning, but maybe even something as simple as not documenting what was promised her. Or maybe she pissed off a close friend of the boss. Or maybe she just doesn’t really see how she’s relating to others on the job.
There are so many possibilities a person might not see at first. But when these things happen, it’s our wake-up call to start paying attention. And maybe start looking at things from a different perspective — such as how others see us.
After you’ve screwed up at work
Here are a few things you can do that might helpful in turn things around for you. Or at least begin to shift the not-so-great impression you’ve left. Even if you don’t agree with how they see you, being right doesn’t change the way a job feels. Or how people act toward you:
- Assess what happened.
- Take responsibility for what was in your control — even if others helped it fail.
- Correct as much as possible. Include any other original participants in the corrective action where possible.
- Make sure you apologize to your boss. Let your boss know you take responsibility and how you are fixing the problem. Also look your boss in the eye, and let your boss know you will work harder and smarter from now on to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
- Mean it.
- Work harder and smarter and try your best to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Whether you wind up staying where you are or moving on, make sure you add these hard-learned lessons to the way you operate from now on.
- So you screwed up at work. We all do. Let the past go.
- Stay in the present and plan for the future without feeling the pressing weight of past screw ups. And remember those things you learned that you can take with you wherever you go.
A few more thoughts
If you stay positive and focused, overcoming a screw-up at work can only add to your value as an employee. What happened to Leana may at first glance seem like bad news. But in the long run (if you play it right) can offer up career smarts that will prove more valuable than any raise.
The trick is using the past to learn, letting go of any anger or bad feelings, and then moving on. Success doesn’t have time for baggage.
But — if handled right — screw-ups can actually help make you stronger and smarter in the long run. Just seven more words of advice: try not to do it too often.
[Article updated in 2020]
About the author…
Ronnie Ann, founder of Work To the Wise and Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development, as well as her many adventures as a serial job seeker.
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