Mistakes happen. The wrong card gets handed out at the Oscars. A typo causes data disruptions for businesses across the Northeast. Or maybe you just sent the wrong email to a client. Big or small, public or in-house, everyone screws up at some point in his or her career, and the more responsibility you have, the greater the chances you will fail.
Failure, however, does not mark the end of your career. It might not even be a speed bump. With the correct attitude and a willingness to make things right, a work blunder can prove to be a learning experience that gives you valuable skills for the future. It all rests on how you handle it.
"Whether you are an employee or own your own business, you've got to be able to handle and recover from making a blunder, because we all do it," said Sharon Schweitzer, author and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide, a company that advises corporate leaders in cross-cultural etiquette.
Angela Sebaly, author of "The Courageous Leader: How to Face Any Challenge and Lead Your Team to Success" (Wiley, 2017), calls these moments of failure "humbling experiences."
"Everyone gets a humbling experience at least once in our careers, and the more we attempt to grow and the more we expand our potential, the more we expose ourselves to feeling humbled," she said.
The road to recovery
Schweitzer said the steps for recovering from business failures are the same even for the newest employee: minimizing emotions, maintaining transparency, accepting responsibility, apologizing, repairing or controlling the damage, and learning from the experience.
1. Minimize emotions
This is probably the biggest challenge for most people. When people make a mistake, especially at work, they are embarrassed and maybe even ashamed, plus they are concerned for their professional credibility, Schweitzer noted.
"You may even feel a little panic and uncertainty: Where do I go? What do I do?" she said.
The key to minimizing emotions is to maintain perspective. Seldom does a mistake end a life or even a business. It's important to remember that.
"In the freeway of life, is it a parking ticket or a multi-car collision?" Schweitzer said to ask yourself.
She added that it can help to remember the greatest successes experienced colossal failures, from Henry Ford to Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, whose first product burned rice instead of cooking it.
Sebaly suggests keeping an open mind and looking at the situation as an opportunity, even if it involves a reprimand. Getting that perspective then lets you act with the minimum of emotions.
"If you can keep open-minded, it puts the pain in perspective," Sebaly said.
2. Accept responsibility
The next important thing, transparency, simply means owning up to your role in the error. It also means looking at the error not only to see what you can do to fix it but also to prevent it from happening again.
Next, of course, comes the apology. Schweitzer suggests going quickly to each person affected to explain the situation, acknowledging your mistake and letting them know you are fixing the problem or have fixed the problem. If needed, let them know what steps you are taking to prevent it from happening in the future.
When you apologize, be concise and factual.
"Don't overdo the apology. Just say, 'I made a mistake and this is how I'm fixing it.' Sometimes, that sentence is all people need to hear," Schweitzer said.
4. Repair or control damage
After the apology, follow through on the damage control.
"You earn trust through your actions, not just your words," Schweitzer said.
In fact, on a business level, she recommends that when you work with a client after a big mistake and have rebuilt that trust, secure a testimonial from them to show potential new clients that you are willing to work to improve your business and serve your clients.
5. Learn from the experience
The last step is learning from your mistakes. If you have supportive colleagues, ask them for their take on what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening in the future. If your error uncovered a potential problem that could arise again, then work to change procedures or implement safeguards. (Amazon Web Services did this after a mistyped command caused a region-wide data disruption of cloud services on Feb. 28.)
After you've accomplished these steps, you have one more important thing to do: take care of yourself.
"Don't let the emotions build up like steam in a kettle. Release them in a healthy way," Schweitzer said. This could be taking a walk, meditating, lifting weights or playing with your dog, she added.
Sebaly agrees that healing from a humbling experience is necessary for moving forward.
"During a humbling experience, we're feeling pain and practicing being open and sitting in that discomfort," she said. "After we have time to heal, we can process the experience more fully."