The Big Mistake: What to do when you’ve completely messed up!

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32190_lIt’s that feeling, deep in the pit of your stomach. The one that only comes around when you’re wishing it’s all just a bad dream. You take a breath, pinch yourself, and prepare to wake up. A few seconds go by. Nothing happens. The feeling gets worse.

Let’s rewind a few minutes. It’s just another day at the office, when, BAM!

It hits you like a brick. You realize you’ve made a mistake. A big one. This is more than just putting the letterhead in the printer the wrong way. This one will have consequences.

Maybe you misspelled a major donor’s name in a press release. Or you’ve completely forgotten to prepare for this afternoon’s presentation with a project funder. Or maybe, after writing something incredibly nasty about your boss in an email, you clicked reply all.

As the colour drains from your face and you move past a bout of hyperventilation, it’s time to plan your next move. You may think your job is toast, but before you give up all hope, you ask yourself, “Is there a way to come out of this ordeal with my career, and reputation, unscathed?”

First things first. Get the hardest step out of the way, and start with an apology.

Toronto-based psychotherapist Kimberly Moffit says that although it may be difficult, it’s best to come clean immediately after you realize the mistake was made.

“It is always better to admit that there was a mistake before somebody else finds out, and blabs,” says Moffit. “Fessing up to a mistake gives you the chance to get the first word in, before someone catches you off-guard.”

Although every mistake may be unique, Moffit prescribes a consistent remedy: a policy of haste, regardless of the gaffe.

“For example, if you’ve sent an email that was inappropriate, always send a follow-up email right away, to acknowledge that there was some kind of mistake, and apologize,” she says. “Or, if possible, immediately go to unintended recipient in-person, and try to explain yourself.”

“Mistakes may be distinct,” Moffit adds, “but the approach to fixing the error – a speedy one – should be common with all mistakes.”

Turning a negative into a positive

Taking responsibility for the mistake can be very difficult, especially for someone just entering the nonprofit sector. It’s a feeling that is rued nation-wide – a recent survey found that making a mistake on the job is the biggest workplace fear. However, according to nonprofit trainer Rosetta Thurman, despite the flack that comes with making a mistake on the job, fessing up can actually show strength of character.

“Maybe you’re not the CEO or at the director level. Maybe you’re at the entry-level or middle-management position, and you feel that if you take responsibility for this mistake, your head is on the line. You may be disciplined. You may be demoted. You may be fired,” says Thurman, who is the author of the book How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar. “There are many fears people have about making mistakes, and to face these fears and admit that a mistake has been made shows a certain element of confidence and professionalism.”

On the other hand, hiding your gaffe or pinning the blame on others can mar your reputation.

“If your coworkers or superiors have the opportunity to formulate assumptions in their mind about what the mistake means, then it’s a lot worse for you,” says Moffit. “If you have the chance to explain yourself before they jump to conclusions, it’s always better.”

Christian Codrington, a senior manager at the British Columbia Human Resources Management Association, admits that coming clean is never easy. However, going to your boss with a plan to remedy the mistake can often draw focus away from the error itself.

“Apologizing to those you need to apologize to, and clarifying what you need to clarify are very important, but taking ownership is the most important piece of the puzzle. Work on a plan,” he says. “If you say to your superior, ‘This is what I want to do, what do you think?’, it demonstrates your problem-solving skills, rather than merely saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. Help.’”

Honesty carries a lot of clout, and Codrington has some empirical evidence to back it up.

“There was a situation at an organization that I worked for, where a senior leader made a rather large assumption about something that happened, and castigated staff, publicly, about it,” recalls Codrington. “When that leader was corrected, and found out the truth about what really happened, that individual went on the company’s internal public phone system, and apologized to all of the staff for making that assumption.”

“He clarified what really happened, and took ownership for his initial action,” he adds. “As I listened to folks who heard the voicemail, they all really appreciated the clarification of information. The action helped his reputation more than the initial mistake harmed it.”

One major no-no? “Don’t apologize by email to avoid getting chewed out in-person,” says Codrington.

“Apologizing through the mask of an email or letter are the types of things that kill your reputation,” he says. “It could be seen as thoughtlessness, or even cowardice.”

Taking a proactive approach

Aside from the impact it could have on your job, a blunder at work can often take a personal toll.

“There are a lot of ways that we can put ourselves down when we make a big mistake, because we think that’s what other people are thinking about us,” says Moffit. “It can be destructive to us when we make a mistake like this.”

Moffit says the first step is to accept that everybody makes mistakes.

“Make a list of things that you are amazing at in your job – all the things that you’ve done right in the past year. On the other side, write your one mistake,” she advises. “This way, instead of just focusing on the one mistake and letting it flood your mind with negatives, focus on the fact that everyone makes mistakes, and that you’ve probably accomplished more than you originally thought.”

Instead of addressing your mistakes as failures, Thurman recommends they be viewed as learning opportunities.

“Not only do we need to ask ourselves how we can avoid this mistake next time, but also, what skills do I now need to develop?” she says. “For example, if you’re a development director struggling with time management, you can say to yourself, ‘Maybe I need to sit down with someone who is a more seasoned development director than I am, and ask them how they manage.’ It takes you from feeling like a failure to thinking, ‘I can do this, and I can do this much better than I ever dreamed of!’”

Moffit recommends chatting with trusted colleagues or coworkers as a means of finding support in the workplace.

“In your mind, the mistake might be a huge catastrophe, but from their perspective, it might not have been anything else but something that was slightly awkward, and far from the end of the world,” she says.

Circumstances unique to the nonprofit sector

“There are very few mistakes that you can’t come back from, and that’s something people need to remember, especially in the nonprofit world,” reminds Thurman.

She has noticed that people who make mistakes in nonprofit positions are more prone to heaping pressure or guilt upon themselves than in other sectors.

“Many people in nonprofits think that if they mess up, it’s not just them making a mistake, but that they’re jeopardizing programming for people who are less fortunate,” says Thurman. “That makes people feel even more guilty about making a mistake, which is a major difference between making mistakes in the nonprofit workplace, versus the corporate world.”

Melanie Herman, the executive director of the Virginia-based Nonprofit Risk Management Center, says that she has noticed similar trends in her 27 years of working with North American nonprofits.

“I would hazard a guess that many charity leaders feel as though they are under intense scrutiny if they make a mistake,” says Herman. “Many feel as though that they are not only letting down their organization, but also their stakeholders, donors, and the people who come to them for services and help.”

Herman diagnoses this exponential feeling of guilt as something that is intrinsic with dedicated nonprofit staff and volunteers.

“They’re so passionate about the missions of the organizations that they work for,” she says, “that there is a fear that if they make a mistake, the mistake could impair the mission and the effectiveness of the organization.”

Though nonprofit employees may feel more guilt and pressure than their for-profit counterparts, Thurman says that nonprofit employees are harder on themselves than they ought to be.

“The nonprofit world is known for valuing people over outcomes,” she says. “Nonprofits are committed to their staff, deeming them as complete parts of their mission – an integral piece of the puzzle – versus replaceable cogs in the machine.”

Not that it should be an excuse, but Thurman urges us to keep in mind that “it’s very expensive to fire someone and hire someone else.”

“In the nonprofit sector, once an organization has found a good person, they want to keep them,” she says, “If you have the passion for the mission, you have a unique place in the sector.”

Take risks, and grow

Taking risks is more vital to nonprofits than many may think, says Herman.

“People hear the word risk, and think about the downside. They think about harm, and loss,” she notes. “But a risk is something taken to achieve a benefit.”

Herman adds that organizational risk-taking should be supported from top-level nonprofit employees. She encourages senior management to encourage creative thinking, rather than “blaming and shaming” those who make mistakes.

“Great organizations make leaps toward their mission by taking risks, and taking risks necessitates thinking about the potential downsides – the inevitable mistakes,” she says. “Leaders need to acknowledge their own mistakes, as it sends a message to everyone else that they work in a culture where admitting mistakes is not just allowed, but encouraged, and that it doesn’t hinder the nonprofit’s mission or reputation.”

“It shows leadership and courage – values nonprofits not only embrace, but require, in order to grow.”

So, if you find yourself panic-stricken at your desk, having just realized that you’ve screwed up big-time, Thurman wants you to remember that it really isn’t the end of the world. It’s merely part of the process.

“For nonprofits, everything that we do to develop ourselves is part of the work. It’s a part of the journey to change, to improve,” says Thurman.

“If you’re not making mistakes,” she adds, “then you’re not taking risks, and you’re not really living up to your full potential.”

Brock Smith is a radio reporter/producer and communications specialist based out of Ottawa, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com.

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