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Mea Culpa

Recovering after a major screw-up

Dear Nan,
Help! I’ve really screwed up on the job. In fact, I’ve made such a huge mistake I’m embarrassed to even reveal it. My boss, fortunately, is willing to give me a second chance, although I feel her watching me constantly. My coworkers (two of whom I supervise) appear less supportive, and I’m afraid I’ve lost their respect.
My professional self confidence has plummeted. Emotionally, I feel I am the only one this has ever happened to in the workplace. Could your readers give me some advice? Right now, I feel I have stewed myself into a professional quagmire.

Will everyone who has never made a mistake on the job please stand up? Some of us have made minor errors; some of us have made major boo-boos; and, some of us have even made utter fools of ourselves. All of us have erred. “I believe that someone who doesn’t make a mistake once in a while isn’t doing anything productive in the first place,” says Donna Ferguson, administrative assistant with Manchester Tank & Equipment Co. in Quincy, Illinois.

I’m not advocating you do this (this admin was just plain lucky), but you may chuckle at how this admin creatively handled her major screw-up: Natalie Soine, manager of Papillion Training in Cape Town, South Africa, once sent her manager 1,000 miles away to a non-existent meeting. As her boss landed at the airport, she finally reached (by phone) the person he was going to see. She merely asked whether the meeting was confirmed. He calmly replied—“Uh, I can’t find it in my calendar, but I’m available so he’s welcome.” Her boss never even knew she goofed! Talk about a near miss.

Fortunately, mistakes are not fatal, but not learning from them could be. At least you aren’t playing them out on the international stage. What did Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton and domestic diva Martha Stewart do that made their mistakes look even worse? Their denials made their lapses in judgment look downright wicked; and, we were left wondering what else they were lying about or covering up. The Dixie Chicks’ “misstatements,” Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Rush Limbaugh’s drug problem and even William Bennett’s gambling habit are reminders of how far the mighty can fall when they try to deny reality. Long after the incidents have left the headlines, we will forever suspect there is a lot more fire behind all that smoke.

If our lives were reality shows, we would be the stars. Successful people in our profession are known to be careful and correct about almost everything. Some of us admit with pride that we are perfectionists. Many times, we are the ones who hold others accountable, and we are often the go-to people to fix other people’s mistakes.

To us, mistakes are a very big deal. We all know the unwritten part of our job descriptions goes like this: “Help us avoid disasters. Help everyone with damage control. Keep things looking calm and collected and running smoothly, even when we are paddling frantically just below the surface. If there is a screw up, you are on the company’s first-responder team, so fix it.” Not surprisingly, this means our mistakes are very special indeed because they are so uncommon.

So, how do you recover from an enormous mistake?

Forgive Yourself

“Learn to look at yourself in the mirror again and like what you see,” advises Maryann E. Winfield, human resource administrative specialist at Dell Inc. in Austin, Texas. From that point on, you should have no trouble aligning your actions with your values.” I agree. This is an internal dialogue you have to have with yourself before you can proceed in any way. Why? You have a few potentially difficult conversations ahead of you and if you aren’t mentally prepared, you will be less effective.

Other respondents agree: “First, quit kicking yourself. We all screw up to varying degrees,” says Carol McBride, assistant VP/office manager with Haylor, Freyer & Coon Inc. in North Syracuse, New York.

“Remember how you would treat someone who had made the same mistake you did. Often, we are so much harder on ourselves than we would be on others,” points out Jill Mahoney, administrative assistant with The Principal Financial Group in Des Moines.

And Sally Costello of The Shaw Group Inc. in Ross, Ohio, advises: “If you continue to show outwardly that you are beating yourself up, then others will beat you up as well. Some people feel good about themselves if they can pick on a ‘loser,’ so don’t let them. Do not give your power away.”

Adds Julia Baker, division secretary/steno at U.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi: “I’ve also done something that was devastating to my professional ego. I finally had a talk with myself. I knew my coworkers had blundered on occasion, but I really couldn’t remember specifics about their errors, so it was probably my ego making me think they were focusing on my blunder. I reminded myself it’s not always about me, and I am a very good secretary and will continue to be a very good secretary.”

Acknowledge Your Mistake

Now it’s time to go public with confidence. You must acknowledge your mistake to your boss and coworkers who are affected and do so without blaming others or using any weasel words that cause people to doubt your sincerity.

“Disclose the facts to your manager and be prepared to include a solution so the same error is not made in the future,” suggests Sharon Forston, senior administrative assistant with GKN Aerospace Chem-tronics Inc. in El Cajon, California. “My experience has been that when you demonstrate a sincere personal desire to be a part of the solution, your manager will respect your confidence as an assistant to continue making appropriate decisions.”

And Bill Campbell CPS of Sacramento reminds us that the Dale Carnegie Sales Course advises, “When you lay an egg, step back and acknowledge it.”

Do not try to dodge responsibility. People are watching you. Be a model of professionalism by taking responsibility for your actions. Use this experience as an opportunity to set the standard for open communication and mutually supportive teamwork. You may actually have to ask your coworkers for their help.

“I’ve found it’s very hard for someone to be angry with you after you’ve taken full ‘credit’ for the mistake,” notes Rosemary Deitzer CAP of Association & Meeting Services in West Chester, Ohio. “What can they say? People usually thank me for telling them immediately and being upfront about it. The people who get into trouble with their mistakes are the ones who try to cover up and/or refuse to tell the truth. The cover-up then becomes worse than the mistake.” Martha learned this the hard way.

Apologize Appropriately

Keri Younker, secretarial specialist with Munroe Meyer Institute in Omaha, Nebraska, notes that in the process of cleaning up the mess after making a mistake, you must apologize if necessary. Younker suggests calling a meeting of those affected, openly discussing what has happened, apologizing publicly to everyone at the meeting for making the mistake, and then stating you will do whatever you can to fix the problem. “Then, you have to move on. Even those you supervise will respect you even more if they see you can admit your mistake.”

Take Action

This brings us to the next step in the recovery process. Now that we’ve acknowledged our mistake and taken responsibility for it, it is time to get back to work, doing whatever we can to fix the problem or, at the very least, making certain it will not happen again. Let people know by your actions that you’ve learned from this mistake so you will not repeat it. Your actions so far reflect well on you, and you are setting an example for others.

“If they make a mistake, they must bring it to your attention immediately so it can be corrected—just like you did,” says Carolina J. Wilson CEOE with the education office at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “It will take a while, but honesty and consistency in your performance will bring back any of the respect you’ve lost.”

Rebuilding trust with your boss may take some special effort. Although, I recall one boss who told me his assistant made a huge financial error costing the company a considerable sum. When asked if he fired her, he replied: “Why would I do that? I know she won’t make the same mistake again. And, I don’t know that about someone else I may hire.”

“It speaks volumes that your boss is willing to give you a second chance. To me, that says there is a history of solid work performance,” says Rebecca Carlisle with the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Karen Samuelson, purchasing administrative assistant with John I. Haas Inc. in Yakima, Washington, fondly recalls one of her supportive bosses (a former military commander) who said to her when she was hired: “The only problem that can’t be fixed is death, so never be afraid to come to me with a problem. Consequently, there were very few errors, even minor ones, we did not address as a team, since I knew there would be no dire consequences.”

Personally, I’ve always loved the words of author, Louis Gerstner: “Prizes will not be given for predicting rain—prizes will only be given for building arks!”

Yes, your boss is probably going to be keeping her eye on you a little closer for a while (that’s her job). A little extra communication back and forth is just what you need to rapidly build up your confidence and credibility again. A true professional knows when to call on the team backing you up, so this is your time to get a little extra support. Ask for the support you need. You are a team working on many things at once, and there is never enough time to double-check everything, right?

Samuelson adds that one heartfelt acknowledgement, apology, and volunteering to help fix the problem should be enough for the boss (and coworkers), and after that “your boss should stand up for you to your coworkers, assert that you are a valued employee, and say that you would appreciate their support and assistance.” The people around you will see that this may have been your mistake, but the next one may be theirs, so only a fool will fail to help you move forward.

“I completely understand how this person feels,” writes Carolyn O’Connor, executive assistant with the City of Holland, Michigan. “Any mistake seems catastrophic, so when I make a huge mistake I feel the earth should swallow me whole and I should be banished from existence. I have learned that the key to professional growth is to learn from my mistakes. When we look back, we can always see a trail of breadcrumbs leading to that mistake. Take steps to pay attention to those little things.”

Maintain a Positive Attitude

People only want to be around positive people. Don’t plague yourself with “what if’s,” says Jeanette Sanders of Honda of America in Marysville, Ohio. “Move on, maintaining the same professional integrity that you have always had.” After all, as Susan L. Auyer, subcontract administrator at Bechtel National in Richland, Washington reminds us: “We’re all in the same boat. And, as we preach here at Bechtel, if you handle it well, your mistake will not be the focus—your solution is what will be remembered.”

People respect honesty and integrity and, with time, your mistake will be ancient history. Take heart: Bill Clinton is the come-back kid, Martha Stewart will shortly be writing her million-dollar-book about how to survive prison life, and Richard Nixon’s later books were all best sellers.

It’s never too late to start anew. My favorite proverb on this subject comes from Turkey: “No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn back.”

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars