How to Keep Mistakes from Damaging Your Career
You’re going to make mistakes at work. We all do.
The key is to keep them from doing irreparable damage to your career.
In fact, what separates those who keep progressing and those who don’t often comes down to their “mistake response”. That is, the way they handle themselves after making a mistake.
Here are three steps that will help you keep those inevitable mistakes from damaging your career:
- Own your mistake
- Move forward
- Manage your demeanor
Start off on the right foot by owning your mistake
When everyone else can see it’s your mistake, don’t be the only one trying to back out of it. It can backfire and make you look insecure.
That means taking responsibility rather than arguing or trying to duck out of it. In an era of finger-pointing and judging others, it’s a sign of confidence to own up to an error.
Like the time my big boss sent a memo to the entire department explaining why his approach led to missing the business mandate on a big financing deal and the five lessons he took from it so that we could all benefit from this painful lesson.
That took a lot of guts and it also set an example for the rest of us that we could own our mistakes and use them as learning experiences.
Which brings us to the second step.
Armed with your learnings, it’s time to move forward
While it’s natural to want to dwell on the mistake, it’s not helpful to keep replaying the scene or otherwise beat yourself up about it.
Having made many mistakes, I can attest that a variety of factors that will conspire to keep you in a negative state. Like replaying the scene over and over and wishing you had done things differently or not said what you said. And the stress hormones running through your body will pull you back into wallowing.
To move beyond this, there are three things you can do. First, do what I like to call a “pattern interrupt”. This means disrupting your negative thoughts and emotions by doing something different.
My daughter uses the “clap, clap, next” technique on the basketball court. If she’s missed a shot, she’ll clap her hands twice and say “next” to remind herself to move on. You could also snap a rubber band that’s around your wrist. Or you could get up and walk around for a change of scenery.
Second, you can journal. Writing things down gets them out of your brain so you don’t have to think about them and re-review constantly. And third, you can remind yourself of what you’re capable of at your best. That way, you’ll have that positive visual in mind to move toward.
Which brings us to the third step.
Manage your demeanor so it doesn’t broadcast you’ve just made a mistake
Having taken steps one and two, you’re likely to feel okay about things even after a misstep. And feeling composed is the surest way to come across as composed.
But in case you still haven’t quite gotten over the embarrassment or shame of making your mistake, you nonetheless owe it to yourself to do your best to manage your demeanor.
People take their cues from how you behave. Like when a young child falls down but isn’t really hurt, if the adults rush over concerned the toddler is likely to start crying. Similarly, if you’re acting like the world has fallen apart when you make a mistake, that amplifies everyone else’s views of the event.
And they may also form an impression of you as being brittle, lacking maturity or unable to handle yourself when things get tough. None of which will help you advance in your career.
As any professional athlete or poker player knows, you don’t want people to be able to tell by looking at you whether you’ve just made an error or done well. As a professional in your field, adopting that demeanor will serve you well too.
But what if you’ve already shown how upset you are?
What’s done is done and you can’t worry about it. Just start from where you are now and begin your mistake response steps from here. Remember that people will be glad to see that you’ve bounced back, so keep moving forward.
Just don’t risk compounding your mistake by dwelling on it
Dwelling on a mistake you’ve already made means you’re taking your eye off of what’s happening in the present. And that can easily lead to making another mistake.
So avoid making the mistake after the mistake. Instead, focus on what you’re doing now, keep your head in it and look for ways to change the momentum.
The next time you make a mistake, pay attention to your “mistake response”
And remember to take these steps:
- Own your mistake – take responsibility and extract the lessons
- Move forward – shift the momentum so you move past the mistake
- Manage your demeanor – people will take their cue from how you handle yourself
Which of these steps would most help you regain your composure and help you recover after making a mistake?
Leave a comment and let me know.
After I made many mistakes throughout my career I learned to learn from the mistake and improve my skills regarding the error
Great pointers in this article. One negative response to a bad mistake could train wreck your career if you don’t take the necessary steps to rectify it.
You got this one right Ms. May.
Manage your demeanor , this step is the most difficult. I have done a recent mistake where I lost the client, that was tough but with goid lessons!
Thank you May
This is an excellent piece! I agree that to own your mistake, move forward, and manage your demeanor are three very important steps to getting over the mistake. I believe that the most important for me is to manage my demeanor!
Move forward and manage my demeanour.
Great points May !
I can relate to this one specially because of one recent incident with my team.
I was upfront to go back to individuals to owe my mistake and communicated with them even more, to ensure nothing is left inside related to that incident.
I so much agree on 3rd point of managing your demeanor. This is so very important and at the same time very difficult also. Improvement in this aspect will come only after conscious steps taken by individual and never will change automatically or with age.
As its so rightly mentioned that it will form an impression of you as being brittle, lacking maturity or unable to handle yourself when things get tough.
I am presently so much working on managing my demeanor and its a constant work to keeping improving on this aspect.
Thanks May !