So, you’ve made a big mistake at work and you’re worried that this will be the end of your career forever and you’ll never be given responsibility again.

It’s not just a regular mistake – this one is huge, so what do you do? 

The quick answer to the question “is my career over?” is, almost certainly not. Unless you’ve done something deliberately fraudulent, criminal or that negligently put lives or people’s security at risk, your career might suffer a stall or a sideways move, but it is very unlikely to be over. But equally, it just might give your career an unexpected boost. 

The first thing to remember is that everyone makes mistakes. Unfortunately though, some companies have a serious blame culture and if you know this to be true of your organisation, you are probably more worried than you would be in a more forgiving environment. If this is the case, you might want to think about whether it is the best environment for you and your development.

Whether you work in a positive or negative culture, you’ll definitely need an action plan to deal with your mistake positively, no matter how big it may be.

How to deal with it

As with many things in life, in most cases the mistake is less important than the consequences and how you deal with them. There are two things you should not do if you make a mistake: pretend it didn’t happen or try to blame someone else.

Let’s say you’ve arranged a massive event, but realise you have forgotten to send out the invitations when you were supposed to. The event is in less than a week and you’ve just realised. It was on your list of things to do, but in the rush of everything else – you haven’t done it. 

Ok – it’s a major mistake, but it’s time to own up. You may be tempted to blame the intern, or the wider situation, but always take responsibility for your own actions – be open and honest.

It’s helpful at this stage to think about ways the mistake can be rectified rather than presenting a problem with no solution.  So take responsibility for the mistake, and for thinking of ways to deal with it.

The conversation

Perhaps the hardest part of making a mistake is telling your manager, but this has to be done - and it has to be done quickly and unambiguously. 

He or she will either react really badly or they will try and find a resolution. A good manager will focus on the issue and try find a solution with you or for you. They won’t just leave you to pick it up. 

Find a confidential space where you can talk and succinctly describe the issue. Take responsibility and say you are willing to do what it takes to put it right.  Perhaps propose some initial thoughts you’ve had get things back on track.  Listen to their advice and remember, your manager or leader is paid a higher salary to pick up the pieces when things don’t go as planned. They may give you a greater sense of proportion; a mistake that feels catastrophic to you might seem a minor inconvenience to her or him. 

In the case of forgetting to send out invitations, your manager may suggest that you get all hands to the pump, making calls and doing the very best to fill the event. Everyone would work together to deal with an issue like this. 

If you do find that your manager is focused on blaming you, rather than finding a solution, it may be time to look at working in a different culture. Blame cultures are not healthy.

In some roles, you may need to report your mistake to the client and broadly the same rules would apply, except the onus is on you to provide the solution. You need to make the call - or meet - as soon as possible but not before you’ve thought through how you’re going to address the error. 

That way the conversation can start positively, “Ken, I’m calling you because I promised the invitations would go out two weeks ago. That didn’t happen and I wanted to explain why, and what I am doing right now to put it right.”

Learn from mistakes

The internet is littered with quotes about the positive side of mistakes. One of my favourites comes from the man behind the Dilbert cartoons.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
Scott Adams

The consistent theme that emerges from these quotes, is that everyone makes mistakes but wise people see them as a learning opportunity. 

One of the key mantras in marketing is to Test, Measure, Adapt. Try something, see if it works and then tweak it and try again to see if the result improves. So there’s always a degree of failure to contend with. Indeed some people see failure as the most powerful form of personal development, as it demonstrates you are pushing yourself to your limits.  Most very successful entrepreneurs have made some very big mistakes along the way.

Although you don’t want to get into the habit of making mistakes – you shouldn’t fret too much about them either. But do reflect. Keep a learning log, which details your mistakes (along with your successes), what you have learned from it and what you’d do differently next time. At the very least you’ll end up some excellent model answers for competency-based interview questions which ask about how you have dealt with challenges. 

Use your reflection time to consider if you have any gaps in your skills or knowledge you can work on or work around. If you forgot to send the invitations because you weren’t on top of the project, perhaps you need to go on a project management course. And if you were just too busy you might want to learn how to delegate more effectively.  Or, it might show wider structural resourcing issues that you and your manager need to address.

Mistakes can have a positive effect on your career, so whatever you do, do learn from them. 

And even better, learn from other people’s too!