How to recover from a big mistake


If you work long enough, you’ll eventually make a whopper of a mistake.

Stuff happens, people are human, no one’s judgment is perfect, and we’re all tasked to make more decisions with more data in shorter amounts of time.

He did what?!

I was up for a promotion from Production Editor to Developmental Editor, and I was scared to death I had no idea what I was doing—because I didn’t. During the interview, I asked my soon-to-be-new boss, “What do you have to do to get fired from this job?” If nothing else, I figured, I’d avoid doing that.

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My soon-to-be-new boss said, “Well, Ryan [not his real name] lost an entire manuscript, and he’s still here.”

This was back in the day when manuscripts were all paper, people. In this case, the author was working on a revision, and she’d marked up the galley proofs and then mailed them in. Somehow they disappeared, and even a desperate forage through the trash at the local landfill (yep, my soon-to-be-new boss and Ryan got knee-deep in it) couldn’t produce the missing documents.

So, Ryan had to swallow it and call the author.

I can’t remember if she’d made copies, or if she rewrote the manuscript, but in any case the book was published, and Ryan worked for many more years at the company. In fact, I believe he’s still there.

Uh, boss …

As for me, I once accidentally trashed my plane tickets to the company’s annual sales meeting. Again, this was back in the day when you used a travel agent and got real tickets in the mail. Imagine that!? After I realized what I’d done, a couple of weeks or so before the meeting, I knew I’d have to confess.

How do you explain to your brand-new boss that you’ve tossed $1000 of company money in the trash while cleaning out your junk drawer? With trepidation, that’s how.

I told him, he laughed, and we ordered more tickets. Later I called the airline and proceeded to hound them for the next several weeks until my company had received a refund for the tickets I’d carelessly discarded.

It’s the human condition

I’ll say it again. Humans are infinitely fallible. And if you’re in management or HR, the ante is upped, because you’ll be dealing with lots of people problems, and you definitely won’t handle all of those as perfectly as everyone would like. There are too many variables, and you can’t always predict where a conversation might lead.

My point is, making a mistake, even a big one, is inevitable. And the way to recover is simple to acknowledge that reality while accepting responsibility, making things right where you can, and learning from the incident.

Understand that your character will be revealed by how you handle your mistakes. Also understand that the character of your leadership will be revealed by their reaction to your mistakes.

Either way, then, mistakes are a great way to grow and discover what you and those around you are made of.

Have you made your first big mistake at work? How did you recover?

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