I messed up

 Ever make a bad mistake? One that makes you feel like there’s a hollow in your chest—you know you’ve messed up badly. Maybe you were even trying to do the right thing, but it just ended up wrong unintentionally. This happens to me regularly. It recently happened to a friend of mine—I feel for him.

The worst part of making a bad mistake is the panic that ensues. Your stress level skyrockets. You desperately seek a way to make it better. You can’t sleep. You feel guilty and responsible. The panic can last for days. Or you could be indifferent and dismissive because you are pond scum.

Make it right

For those of us with a soul, who care about rectifying our mistakes, the thing we want to know most is, “How do I make this right?” I’m glad you asked. Here’s what you do, in order.

1.      Take responsibility—you made the mistake, you need to admit it.

2.      Deeply understand the fallout—don’t make it worse by fixing the wrong problem.

3.      Invite help to repair the damage—acknowledge the problem isn’t yours alone.

4.      Ensure it doesn’t happen again—talk about the way forward.

This can be a tough time to stay calm and in control of your emotions. However, staying calm is essential to rectify the situation. You made a big mess—there are no shortcuts to cleaning it up. Let’s talk through each step.

Eric Aside

Whatever you did or said wrong is done, so don’t bother trying to “take it back.” Email recall only attracts attention to your mail. Hiding mistakes only makes them far worse. Be an adult and a professional—own your mistakes.

Take responsibility

You’ve made a mistake, proving once again that you are human. Being human is a reason, but not an excuse. You really did mess up. The first thing to do is fess up.

Don’t blame others, even if you think they are more at fault. Have some integrity. You acted and others suffered. Admit it plainly. “I made a mistake,” is all you need to say.

For a mistake at work, “I’m so sorry” and “Please forgive me” can be unnecessary and even be legally damaging in particularly sensitive circumstances. Why is saying you’re sorry unnecessary in some work situations?

§  You aren’t sorry in a legal sense—claiming responsibility for everything that happened. You regret making the mistake, but it wasn’t malicious.

§  You want to inspire confidence in your ability to handle the problems you’ve caused—not sound weak and helpless.

§  You want to focus on the future, when the problems are corrected and don’t happen again—not dwell on the past.

Eric Aside

Of course, in personal situations it’s often important to say you’re sorry. However, this is not your personal life. This is business. The best forgiveness comes when you’ve competently and confidently acknowledged the issue and rectified it.

There’s no need to belabor the point. Simply say, “I made a mistake,” and move forward.

Deeply understand the fallout

The biggest blunder people make after a mistake is suggesting or implementing a quick solution. Take a breath and reconsider. You never would have made the mistake in the first place if you fully understood the problem. Don’t pretend that botching something makes you an expert.

You need to deeply understand the trouble you caused.

§  Who was impacted?

§  Did your mistake impact different people in different ways?

§  What was the nature of the trouble (personal, schedule, resource, or something else)?

§  What solution do people really desire?

§  How can you help, if at all?

§  How can this kind of mistake be avoided going forward?

Only after listening carefully to everyone impacted, asking questions, and truly understanding what happened, can you possibly know how to make it right.

Invite help to repair the damage

The second biggest blunder people make after a mistake is fixing it alone, out of guilt, hubris, or desire for pity. “I made the mistake—I’ll suffer the cost of fixing it” is the rationale. Get over yourself and quit wallowing. Sure, the mistake was yours, but the problem belongs to everyone involved.

Once you know what needs to happen to rectify the situation, ask for help. If you’ve acted with integrity and listened with care, people will be happy to assist you. Repairing the damage together will rebuild relationships and ensure the solution meets everyone’s needs.

Please note the word “relationships.” That’s what this is all about. When you make a mistake, the lasting harm is damaged relationships between you and your partners and customers. Trust is what you are working hardest to recover.

By asking for help, you aren’t trying to avoid responsibility or work. You still own the brunt of the effort and are accountable to see the problems resolved. However, to bring the event to a conclusion that satisfies your partners, they need to be engaged and will want to be included.

Of course, your partners may suggest solutions you don’t like—all the more reason to deeply understand the fallout. That analysis will either help you successfully convince your partners to apply an alternate solution or help you accept the solution they desire. After all, you are in no position to dictate to those you’ve harmed.

The stronger your relationships were before the mistake, the better you will work through the situation together, and the stronger your relationships will be when the trouble is long forgotten. Relationships are everything.

Eric Aside

If you run into trouble, contact Human Resources (HR) or Legal and Corporate Affairs (LCA) as needed. Remember, solving things yourself doesn’t make you a hero or martyr, it makes you an idiot.

If someone else runs into trouble, forgive mistakes and help your peers recover. The relationships you support may be the relationships you need in the future.

Ensure it doesn’t happen again

Once you’ve taken responsibility, understood the issues, and worked toward a broad solution, the only thing left is to avoid any chance of recurrence. People understand the occasional error. It’s when an error is repeated that people question your true intentions and the value you put on your relationships.

As I mentioned earlier, you must deeply understand how this kind of mistake can be avoided in the future. Then you must clearly articulate that intention. There are two magic words you should use, “going forward.”

“Going forward I will confer with our stakeholders before finalizing a decision.” “Going forward I will run the entire automated test suite before checking in a global change.” “Going forward I will ask others before taking the last donut.”

Going forward is far better than looking backward. Forget the blame. Stop the whining. Move toward the future. Everyone will appreciate it.

Eric Aside

As I mentioned in “Your World. Easier,” people tend to repeat certain mistakes, which is why checklists are so handy. Keep track of your personal patterns, and put procedures in place to prevent problems.

All better

Sometimes people simply need to hear you acknowledge a mistake. They’ll fix the problem or be happy to help. They only want to know that you realize your error, appreciate the problem you caused, and know how to avoid it going forward.

Sometimes there is no way to repair the tangible damage, or the damage lingers for years. However, you can still repair relationships by taking responsibility and ensuring the ruckus is not repeated.

Why are people so forgiving? Because everyone makes mistakes. We’ve all experienced the horror of realizing we’ve messed up. We are here for each other. Trust others to understand. Work hard to understand them. One day, this too shall pass.

Comments (2)

  1. Reben says:

    These tips are all true. Very helpful article for those people who almost looses hope and are very frustrated for the failure they had experienced. I myself messed up one time but it didn't stop me from doing what I already started to do and in the end I was able to finish successfully.

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  2. Shai says:

    I love most of your advice, but have a problem with one. “Ensure it doesn’t happen again”, and especially the “Going forward” advice. It gives an easy fix oriented toward preventing repeated mistakes or visibility of those.

    The implication is that Instead of learning from mistake to improve work quality, people will gravitate toward defensive group thinking (safety in numbers), dragging their work into other people’s plates (just to make sure they don’t make a repeated mistake). Productivity goes down, co-workers get annoyed and these people lose their confidence and ability to make individual good decisions.

    My advice would be exactly the opposite (assuming we’re not talking about major/catastrophic mistakes that must be avoided at all costs):  Don’t worry about public image, investigate and find the root cause of the problem and fix it. Try to find the most general/wide scope conclusion, not just the narrow one. Test your “root cause” fix to see if it works without fear to your image. If you fails again, it will help you learn to tune your inner feedback. If after a while you’re still making those same mistakes, you’re probably over your head in your current position, change jobs to something you’re a better fit for.

    If you don’t buy my argument, look at two airport security systems and how the "avoid repeated mistakes" vs. "find root cause" influence quality of work.


    “Avoid repeated mistakes” focus rules the dogmatic thinking of the TSA (because it is OK to make new mistakes, just not a repeated one): Their measures are modeled not based on core security logic but 1:1 based on previous attacks (so it never happens again), or in other words "I screwed up, I missed this type of bomb".

    o Take off shoes due to the shoe bomber

    o Liquid restrictions due to the UK group planning a liquid bomb

    o Underwear search – due to the underwear bomber (Oh, they didn’t go that far, instead they got full body scanners 🙂

    TSA failed to implement “root cause” style measures. As a result, terrorists have a nice list of what to avoid and are guaranteed success if they find a new bombing technology not on that list.


    o No shoe take off

    o No liquid restrictions (beyond flying to US due to US regulations)

    o No body search

    Israeli security only uses “root cause” style solutions.In other words: Don't miss a terrorist, irrespective of what they carry with them. For example they use “screeners” – people trained in spotting suspicious patterns. The terrorists cannot find a safe technical solution around this. Clearly it is not bullet proof (no method is), but it is far far superior to the TSA approach that fails constantly (in fact it failed many times, but didn't even work once to catch a terrorist on his way into the plane).