To err is human. Working in any professional services environment where we are required to adhere to specific requirements or deadlines can (more often than not) lead to situations where things go wrong. When it’s too late to go back and fix what we’ve done, however, then things get serious.
Whether it’s someone (usually your manager) who has identified a problem arising in your work, or it’s your team that has identified some complexity at the last minute before the deadline, there are any number of “oh no” situations which can take place in our day-to-day work.
A few years ago I had an experience where a piece of work I had done was undergoing review. Near the end of the project, it was pointed out that I hadn’t obtained sufficient evidence and we needed to get more information to justify our position. However, this was raised late in the game and there was no chance of requesting more info from the client. I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place with not much wiggle room.
In my last 4 years in professional services, I’ve had to learn the hard way in situations such as that one. In order to save you the trouble, I’ve provided a few of the tips and thoughts that help me when things have taken a turn for the worst.
If you (or your team) are in a situation already, what can you do to help yourself now?
1. Take some time to get your ducks in a row
Most professional services environments are fast-paced. People have questions and they wanted answers yesterday. Before you can conclude on anything, however, it is important to take the time to understand exactly what is going on. In other words? Don’t panic.
Before you give in to despair, make sure you know all the details which have led up to the situation you are in now. Whether it’s obtaining a better understanding of the problem or having discussions with team members closer to the details; you should always stop and give yourself time to get the facts straight before you assume there is a problem. This helps to avoid situations where you jump to conclusions without having considered everything first (and will save some people from a few heart attacks later on).
In my case above, once the panic had subsided, I managed to take some time to reflect on what was required. I realised that I could rely on some information which one of my team members had requested earlier on to help support my conclusions. Taking the time to understand the situation I was in, and what was required to solve the problem, helped ensure I didn’t jump to the worst-case: a conclusion that meant involving the client unnecessarily and really, really annoying my manager.
So take a breath, close your eyes for a few seconds and just think through all the facts and circumstances that brought you to this point before you give an answer, send an angry email, or quit your job.
2. If you have made a mistake, acknowledge it
There is absolutely no point in denying you made a mistake. Yes, everyone may think you’re not the superstar you thought you were. Yes, it is super awkward admitting it and yes, you’re going to feel pretty crummy about it afterwards, but someone’s gotta do it.
I know when I accepted that I had made a mistake, I was able to understand better what was required of me in my work. A clearer understanding of expectations going forward meant I wasn’t about to make that same mistake again anytime soon!
Acknowledging your mistakes to your team members can be a daunting task. You might feel scared that they will think less of you or lose faith in your work. I have found, however, that owning up can create greater trust within the team. Everyone now knows that you are not afraid to let them know when something is wrong and that you are capable of identifying your own mistakes.
Owning up to something you did wrong early on can even help prevent further issues down the line. Raised early enough, the issue can be contained by your team and resolved before anyone else needs to know about it. Be brave in knowing that feeling guilty now is going to help prevent greater problems later on.
In many ways, admitting we are wrong is a very humbling experience and – in many more ways – is good for both our sanity and our professional growth.. When we admit when we are wrong, we are opening ourselves to learning how to do something and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Also, we learn how to accept that we are not perfect and that there is still something left for us to learn.
One of the most important things to do when something has gone wrong is to take time to reflect afterward. I have personally found that the best way to approach this is to consider this a process of healing and closure. When the emotion has subsided, we go back to the situation and look at it from all of the available perspectives. We check the actions we should have taken, the questions we should have asked, and what we will do going forward. We close this case and move forward.
3. Reflect: what went wrong and how to improve
An important part of this process is to remember that we can only reflect on our mistakes because they have passed and therefore we shouldn’t be harsh on ourselves for not fixing them earlier.
As you reflect on what happened remember to be kind to yourself. If you think about it, no one is thrilled that something went wrong or that you made a mistake. In that case, you may as well be the one who treats yourself with kindness and respect and tell yourself you will be better next time.
Reflecting on where I went wrong above, I realised that going forward I needed to ensure my work was completed earlier to give reviewers sufficient time to look through it. Also, in circumstances where I was doing technical work, I should have cleared my approach with my manager in advance to prevent the last-minute scramble I went through.
4. Speak to someone and seek guidance
Oftentimes when you’re faced with the reality of a negative situation, it can feel as though you are alone. Speaking to a trusted (and preferably, independent) colleague about what has happened can help to remind us that things can go wrong at any point, for anyone. You can also get advice on what they did to improve and tips on how you can implement this in your own work.
5. Celebrate the mistakes you make
Far too often we associate making mistakes with negative thoughts and feelings, so we try not to make them. Granted, things going wrong is not the best outcome for any situation. If we celebrate the mistakes we have made by identifying these as opportunities to learn, we won’t be so afraid to make them next time.
I also enjoy celebrating when I don’t make the same mistake again. This gives me time to reflect on my own growth and even if no one else can see it, I know I am improving myself and my skills.
The above can be applied to teams as well. Whether you’re a junior starting out or the most senior person in the room, we all trip on our own feet occasionally. Celebrating our mistakes together can bring us closer and boost morale.
Try using this fun strategy to bring your team closer together. In your next team meeting, have everyone take turns announcing “one thing I totally screwed up this week”. This allows everyone to understand they’re not alone and humanises the relationship between leaders and their teams.
It’s okay to make mistakes!
BONUS: If someone else has made a mistake, motivate them
Just as the above needs to be addressed when we make mistakes, so too should we encourage others to do the same. Motivating your team members to acknowledge their mistakes ensures that everyone is held accountable within the team. It also gives people the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes to ensure the issue doesn’t happen again.
The key word here is ‘motivating’. Blaming others when things go wrong is not going to help anyone, and will result in your team being scared to bring up other issues later on. Rather, if you are aware that someone has done something wrong, let them know that it’s okay and that – if they are aware of the issue – next time they should try to raise it with the team sooner.
As JK Rowling rightly notes, we always have a choice as to how we will react in any situation and these choices reflect our real character. If you choose to treat every mistake you have made as an opportunity, imagine how much more you would learn. Choose to think positively and remember to always be kind in how you reflect on your actions.
How do you deal with situations where you (or your team) have made a mistake, and how do you address them? Have you used any of the above tips in your own sticky situations before? Mentally and emotionally, how do you treat yourself when you have made a mistake? Let’s start a conversation about being more open and positive towards the mistakes we make as normal people working in extraordinary circumstances.