Everyone makes mistakes on the job. A big one can draw the attention of an entire division of your company. Rather than fearing mistakes or trying to avoid them, learn to make the most of them. They might be the only reason your boss’s boss ever learns your name.
There are problems at your company every day — some big, some minor. Any time an issue is big enough to reach upper management, they want to know two things: that it’s been fixed, and whose fault it was. If you are a lower-level grunt, you will be responsible for fixing the problems. If you are a manager, your job is to see that the problem gets fixed, explain to upper management why it happened in the first place and how you’re ensuring it never happens again, and protect your team from becoming scapegoats or getting fired.
With that in mind, here are the top five ways to rebound from a mistake at work:
1) Don’t admit to anything in writing. As a preventative measure, never admit to wrong-doing or apologize over email. It seems more sincere in person, and there won’t be a written record of your mistakes on file to outlive your boss’s memory.
2) Get angry to avoid someone else’s anger. Being quiet makes you seem remorseful, and therefore guilty. Instead, convey a healthy dose of pre-emptive anger in the right direction to prevent yourself from becoming the target of someone else’s rage. Appearing baffled helps (e.g., “How could this happen?! I’m going to get to the bottom of this!”). It reinforces your innocence as well as how rarely such issues arise on your team.
3) If you’re a manager whose bosses are looking for someone to blame, assign a scapegoat. There is a caveat — if you blame someone who doesn’t deserve it and who will be affected by your finger-pointing, you not only earn yourself the title of Bad Boss but also make yourself a new enemy.
So what is the right way to assign a scapegoat? Allow me to explain. Most problems don’t have one particular person who is to blame. And when they do, it’s usually a good employee who you wouldn’t want to lose over one mistake. According to a friend of mine on Wall Street, the managing directors’ favorite way of solving this dilemma is to ask who most recently left the team and then blame that person. The person has already moved on to another job, so it doesn’t affect them, no one gets fired, and upper management has the closure they need. And if the scapegoat ever applies for a job at the same company again, everyone has already forgotten the entire incident.
4) Spin it into a promotion. The same friend mentioned above once told me the story of a former director at his company who was given a $300 million budget and tasked with saving his division $500 million over the next two years. He used the budget to grow his staff from 500 employees to 3,000 and then finagled his increased clout into a higher ranking job at a competing company. When his two years were up, he hadn’t saved his division anything, but he was already at a new company and it was someone else’s problem. If you find yourself in charge of a project most likely doomed to fail, it might be noble to keep trying until the bitter end, but you will fare better if you abandon the ship before it sinks.
5) Accept full responsibility – but only if the disaster was not your fault. This one is particularly popular for winning over an angry client who isn’t expecting it. Here’s the catch — if you accept responsibility, you have to make it clear when you do so that it wasn’t actually your fault. It’s good to blame a broken system or something that can’t argue back, and then describe how you’re going to fix it so that this problem doesn’t happen again. Instead of the failure, you are now the problem solver.
How you handle a mistake at work can mean the difference between being the company fall guy and getting a promotion. With these tips you can turn a failure into the top “accomplishment” on your next performance evaluation.