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What to do when you make a mistake at work, by TopLine’s Heather Baker

30th January 2013

If you make a mistake in your day-to-day life, it’s you who is left feeling inconvenienced by the loss of time, money or opportunity. It’s irritating, but part of life. If you make a mistake at work, however, the time, opportunities, and money of multiple parties including the other members of your team, your organisation and your client are impacted. The ripple effect can quickly turn into violent waves, and how you handle yourself in such deep water really matters.

Earlier this year, a member of one of our teams screwed up. It was an accident, but as a result a client was inconvenienced on an enormous scale to the point where it could have easily resulted in the loss of the contract.

However, the team dealt with the problem efficiently, no one had to be fired, and the client relationship made a swift recovery. Here’s how they did it:

1. The client team managed the incident internally. I was kept in the loop about what had happened – it’s essential that directors are informed of issues and kept on standby if intervention is needed – but no one came to me with problems, only solutions. I was simply told what the next course of action was. Good problem solving from the team.

2. The team took the blame as a unit, and not once was the person responsible singled out. As a whole, the team had slipped for a moment and the issue was dealt with as such. I can guess that the person who caused the problem had handled themselves and their mistake with professionalism and there was no need for them to be disciplined by me.

3. The team’s response to the problem was to call the client, admit the error up front and apologise, without pretence or excuses.

A simple apology doesn’t mend all wounds by any means, but for simple mistakes it’s often a sincere, straightforward apology that’s needed. The client’s response, after what I imagine was a very tense day for the team, was “One cock up in over two years – I can’t really hold it against you”.

If you mess up it is your responsibility to minimise the damage and seek whatever help is necessary to do so. That means that when you feel the urge to curl into the foetal position in a darkened room, instead you need to pull yourself together, inform the team and solve the issue together.

Heather Baker is managing director of TopLine Communications

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