Mending Mistakes

By Jamy J. Sullivan, JD

Nobody’s perfect, but that knowledge is little consolation when you’ve just made an embarrassing and potentially costly mistake, such as misspelling a client’s name in an e-mail message or omitting a key piece of information in a report to your supervising attorney.

In the moments immediately following an error, you will obviously have regrets and you’ll no doubt feel self-conscious. It’s important, however, to quickly move to a more objective frame of mind that will help you recover your equilibrium, hopefully repair the damage caused by the mistake and derive useful lessons from the experience.

You need to deal with mistakes on two levels – corrective and preventive. Corrective action entails mending specific mistakes quickly and effectively. At the preventive level, rather than waiting for a mistake to happen, you study past errors for clues about how you could change your work habits or methods to minimize the chance of recurrence.

Post-Mistake Damage Control

When you realize you’ve made an error – or when it’s called to your attention –the first step is acknowledging the mistake and taking responsibility for it. If you are to blame, apologize to the appropriate parties, state your desire to fix the problem and propose a solution. Ask for what you need to set things right – for example, an extension on a deadline, the deferral of another project or additional input from others.

Here are a few important damage control “don’ts”:

  • Don’t blame other people or external circumstances; it will sound like you’re making excuses.
  • Don’t try to turn it into a joke, particularly at someone else’s expense. It will only compound the problem.
  • Don’t go on the defensive and try to shift the focus onto the person who caught your error. This will seem petty and unprofessional.
  • Don’t hide mistakes hoping that no one will notice. While this may temporarily reduce your discomfort, when the mistake is eventually discovered, you could be perceived as careless, indifferent or dishonest, and the repercussions could be much worse.

An Ounce of Prevention…

When you’ve corrected your mistake and gained some time and distance for reflection, take a step back and evaluate what happened. Is this the first time that something like this has happened, or is it part of a familiar pattern? What were the circumstances surrounding the incident? Were you distracted, pressed for time, or suffering from stress or fatigue? Did you understand the assignment or did you feel like you were operating in the dark?

Depending on your answers to these questions, you’ll be able to determine whether your slip-up was situation-specific or symptomatic of a deeper problem. Situation-specific errors are easier to control because the “fix” is often something immediate and tangible – for example, minimizing distractions, asking for guidance or making time in your schedule to proofread twice. If the error is evidence of a deeper issue, however, you’ll need to reflect on the root cause, such as personal matters which may be impacting the quality of work or attention to detail. Failure to address the problem may have a negative impact on the rest of the staff and put your job in jeopardy.

Mending and preventing mistakes is critical to enhancing your performance on the job and expanding your prospects for career advancement. By taking a pragmatic, analytical approach to the errors you may make and we’ve all made mistakes at one time or another – and the thought-processes that led to them, you’ll eliminate self-defeating behaviors and turn these situations into valuable lessons. Not only will you make fewer mistakes yourself, but you’ll also be able to use your hard-won wisdom to counsel others on best practices. Ultimately, your past mistakes will be overshadowed by your consistent efforts to improve your own and others’ performance.