How to Come Back from a Screw-Up

By Karen Sadler

Psst…. Want to know a secret? Everybody screws up at work. It’s not just you! The important thing is that we take the time to learn from our screw-ups and from the screw-ups of our peers.

In today’s workforce, we’re starting to understand that perfection is not the goal. Instead, we need to focus on (and celebrate) learning from our mistakes and challenges and growing into better leaders as a result.

It was in that spirit that the CSAE Trillium Young Professionals Committee hosted a panel discussion in July on industry screw-ups. Moderated by young professional Lindsay Murray of the Niagara Parks Commission, the panel featured three of the association sector’s most successful community members, Feiona Gobin, Account Director at Niagara Falls Business Events, Randi Glass, Executive Director at Canadian Defence Lawyers, and Roz Werner-Arcé, Executive Director at Therapeutic Recreation Ontario,  talking about their own screw-ups and how they’ve helped shaped them into the leaders they are today.

Below, I’ve distilled the tips and tricks that came out of the discussion that will help you move on from your past mistakes and deal gracefully with future screw-ups.

Why do screw-ups happen?

In some cases, we may have trouble “walking that fine line between confidence and arrogance,” suggested Randi. She cautioned ignoring advice from your peers, believing you know better. On the other side of the pendulum, Roz suggested that some mistakes happen due to insecurity and a lack of confidence. “The confidence to tell your boss or your colleague ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ is crucial to preventing errors,” she explained. There is no shame in not knowing something if you’re eager to learn. Feiona added that falling into a routine can also cause us to make big mistakes. “When we do tasks over and over, we may eventually zone out and miss a step or overlook something,” she said. “Best practices change over time. You need to keep on top of them!”

Lessons Learned

When asked to reflect on what they have learned from their past mistakes, the panelists grew thoughtful. “Self-regulation and self-reflection are key,” explained Feiona. She advised attendees not to overreact in the immediate aftermath of a screw-up, but to instead step back and ask yourself what you can do better in the future. Roz stressed the importance of listening to your network’s advice and making sure to solicit that advice in advance of a big decision. She also explained that in the absence of a good path forward, inaction is okay. Sometimes pressing pause will prevent a hasty decision from spiraling out of control and turning into a crisis.

Fessing Up

All three panelists agreed that once you realize you’ve screwed-up, you need to come clean to your manager right away. Although it’s an intimidating thing to do, catching the issue early and notifying others who might be able to help you, may minimize the problem. Admitting your mistake early also shows your boss that you really care about what is happening and that you want to fix the problem. If you already have possible solutions in mind, you can even come prepared with those suggestions.

Dealing with an Unsupportive Boss

Unfortunately, at some point in your career, you may find yourself working with an unsupportive boss. As Feiona described, “sometimes leadership is not in tune with reality. When that is the case, you need to create your own network of support within your organization, relying on other colleagues for advice.” She also emphasized that influence goes both ways. You might be a more junior team member, but “when you reflect openness, honesty, and vulnerability, others feel that they can open up to you too” and the entire office culture will change for the better.

Moving on from Mistakes

When you’ve really screwed up, it can be difficult to let go of your mistakes and move on. Your self-confidence is bruised and the negative voice in your head gets louder. How do you build yourself back up? Randi shared that self-care is key and advised dedicating time to the things that bring you pride and joy outside of work. Roz described using a “brag book” and urged people to reflect on their career successes and write them down in a journal. For every mistake you’ve made, you likely have 10 successes. When you’re feeling low, look back on your success stories for a confidence boost. Lastly, Feiona suggested being more mindful of your negative voice, learning its patterns and nipping the negative messaging in the bud before your emotions spiral out of control.

Lastly, as Roz put it, “this too shall pass”.

Karen Sadler is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator and Associate Editor at the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association. She sits on the CSAE Trillium Young Professionals Committee and the CSAE Trillium FORUM Newsletter Committee.