Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. You’re going to make a mistake. Maybe not a big mistake, but big enough to be noticeable. Although your first instinct may be to ignore it and hope no one notices, that’s almost never the best plan. As a professional, there are much better ways to handle the situation.
Recognize it. First, and sometimes hardest, is admitting to yourself that you made a mistake. We’ve all seen people continue down a path, even after major problems are obvious. It is especially hard to admit you have wasted time and money or that you need to abandon an effort. But the sooner you recognize the mistake, accept it, and start to move on, the less time and money will ultimately be wasted. Take a short time to work through the initial “what have I done” panic, then take a deep breath and start moving forward.
Identify possible solutions. Figure out who or what suffered because of your action (or inaction). Is it retractable? Or would trying to fix it cause more harm than good? Consider the people, processes, and products that are immediately affected as well as the bigger picture. Can you adjust a timeline to make up for this delay? Can some things that were going to be sequential be moved into parallel? Would more money solve the problem? Would adding another person help, or would the extra time to train them make that impractical?
Apologize. Apologize sincerely to those impacted by your actions, in person if possible. Make sure they know that you take responsibility for your actions and any consequences. Your level of concern should be appropriate for the severity of the mistake. Don’t appear too flippant with a serious error, but you also don’t want to wail and gnash your teeth over something minor. Acknowledge the mistake, then move on to what you are doing to correct it. Don’t diminish your apology by following it with excuses.
Remedy the problem. Evaluate your possible solutions and the advantages and disadvantages of each. If appropriate, discuss them with your supervisor and other colleagues. Figure out which course of action is best given your situation, then move forward decisively.
Learn from your mistakes. Put systems in place to avoid making the same mistakes again. Figure out what you could have done differently, and make sure that happens in the future. Can you create a checklist or company policy that would have prevented this? Realize that people will be watching you a little more closely, so you will need to be extra careful and extra dedicated.
Everyone is human, and we all make mistakes. How you react to your own mistakes and how you handle them will be much more important in the long run than exactly what those mistakes were. And if nothing else, you can always turn it into a good story for the behavioral interview question, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.”
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers).