Everyone Makes Mistakes at Work

By: Randy Dotinga

The biggest mistake of my career came a dozen years ago at a weekly newspaper in a wealthy California beach town.

My assignment was to profile one of the top families in town, the Kelloggs. I wrote a huge story, making sure to mention that they were related to the breakfast cereal people. After all, the society editor had confirmed my assumption.

The story appeared, and the Raisin Bran hit the fan. They weren’t the same Kelloggs. They were sick and tired of people thinking they were. To make matters worse, one of their patriarchs played tennis with the newspaper’s publisher three days a week.

The publisher yelled at my boss. My boss yelled at me. We repeated the cycle a few hours later. I got defensive, blamed the hapless (and clueless) society editor, and apologized profusely.

While nobody fired me, my damage control efforts were less than ideal. Workplace experts say there are much more effective ways to react after a screw-up on the job. Here are some of them:

*Confess: It’s good for the soul, and it may be good for your career. Whether you miscalculated an advertising rate, ordered the wrong kind of printer ink, or misidentified a source’s gender, you’ll gain nothing by waiting around if you’re the first to notice your error.

“The longer the time lag between committing the error and acknowledging the error, the less responsible you look,” said Ken Siegel, a workplace psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif.

But many employees sit on their hands after things go south. “You get involved in yourself — your shame, guilt, embarrassment, and not wanting consequences,” said Dory Hollander, a psychologist and executive coach based in St. Louis.

Even worse, you may feel tempted to cover up the mistake. A string of mistruths can spell big trouble, especially if you’re one of those people who usually tells the truth, Hollander said. “You have to be alert, aware, and covering yourself so you can keep your stories straight. What’s not true is harder to remember.”

And then there are the potential consequences once the jig is up. “If somebody finds out that you’ve made the mistake but covered it up and lied about it, they will feel betrayed and your trust could be irrevocably broken,” Hollander said.

*Don’t play defense: “The minute you start whining and blaming and making excuses, the boss sees you as not accountable,” Hollander said. Chances are that the focus will stay on you.

“Bosses are more likely to fire you for irresponsibility than ineptitude,” Siegel added. “Everybody makes mistakes. But irresponsibility is in some ways a crime of character. Ineptitude is more of a crime of ability.”

Of course, you may actually not be entirely responsible for a mistake. In that case, Siegel recommends that you say something like this: “It’s not my fault, but it’s my problem.” Then explain what you’re going to do about it.

*Watch the apologies: If your mistake makes your boss look bad or hurts the newspaper in a big way, say you’re sorry. But just do it once.

Men are more likely to become defensive and blame others after a mistake, but women often seek forgiveness and overdo the business of apologizing, according to Hollander.

*Monitor your reaction: Other than getting fired, there are few things more traumatic in the workplace than failing to do your job properly. Experts say it’s normal to feel stressed for a while, but your self-confidence shouldn’t take a permanent hit.

“Some people go to the extreme of beating themselves up, not being able to get over it — ‘I’m a worthless slob’ and that kind of thing,” said Barry Miller, a workplace psychologist and professor at Pace University in New York. “They have an overwhelming sense of responsibility.”

If you can’t seem to function on the job after making an error, consider seeing a therapist.

*Consider why you made the mistake: It’s one thing if you make a major error as a rookie who doesn’t know better. But there may be something else at play when blunders happen because of laziness or distraction.

“If you’re known for your competence and things start unraveling, then the root cause might be that you’re not challenged,” Hollander said. “You’re bored, you need a career change, you need a different beat. It’s a symptom that you need to do something to get yourself re-engaged.”

If you’re lucky, your error may be just the inspiration you needed.

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