It seems no matter what career stage you are in everyone has the equal opportunity to make mistakes. Some may be accidents, most are completely unintentional, but assuming that once you’ve reached a certain point in your profession you are immune to failure is a dangerous undertaking (I point you to the saying “the bigger they come the harder they fall”…). Mistakes are going to happen, and often with the worst timing possible. The one comfort is that mistakes are an equal opportunity hazard and they do happen to everyone (even Nuns and CEO’s). So what do you do when you are sideswiped by a mistake you made (big or small) that puts your work in a poor light? There is a brief cycle to consider.
First of all there is the moment of realization. If you are fortunate and picked up on it first you may have the opportunity to fix the mistake before it impacts anyone else. You may need to retract an e-mail or send out a corrected file, but when caught on time, these are usually not career limiting. Cringe worthy, but not career limiting. This kind of mistake is fairly low in the hierarchy of mistakes, so lets go to the top. The mistakes we tend to have burned into our psyche are the ones that were more public, that impacted others or that really made a mess of things.
These are a lot tougher to absorb and manage, especially in the heat of the moment. These may come about as a result of someone giving you constructive feedback or “stuff” hitting the proverbial “fan”. You are likely to react emotionally at first (at least inside the sanctity of your own mind), this is a perfectly human reaction and you need to allow the emotion it’s brief moment, usually culminating in a mental “Oh *$*@!”. However, you can’t stay here, you either need to lean into the issue, or ask for a moment to collect yourself so you are able to grasp what to do next. This is important because people will often remember more about how you reacted to the feedback on the mistake then the actual mistake itself. Giving someone constructive feedback requires a measure of courage, if you want to start the process of “fixing” your mistake the first step is listening, and then thanking the person who gave you the feedback, recognizing that it is never an easy thing to do. You may even want to express that you appreciate that someone took the time to do it.
This is never easy, particularly while you are still trying to get your head around what has happened. However, it will go a long way to helping people see you are more than the sum of your mistake. Then, once you have a good feel for what when wrong and what needs to happen next, go do it. And do it well. This may not include actually fixing the mistake you created, sometimes you get to support the person brought in to fix your mistake. Commit to what needs to be done, and complete it in a way that makes it simple and comfortable for everyone. This does not include dramatic acts like resigning, opting out of the mess completely (stating “I’ll just make it worse”) or “laying low for awhile”. While those may all be things you want to do, there is no way any of those things are going to get you your dignity back or regain the trust of others. The only way out of a bad mistake is thorough.
At the end of time a mistake (like many other things) will end up in your memory and diminish, especially if you handled it well. However, a mistake you ignore (like unrefrigerated fish) starts to stink immediately, and the longer you wait the harder it is to get through it (and get rid of the “stink”).