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Very recently I made a bit of a mistake and by bit I mean that I made a speaking gaffe in front of a crowd of 100 plus people while representing an organization at arguably their biggest event to date. Luckily it hasn’t appeared to do any real damage, but still is something I need to learn from. This is an event that most young and even experienced professionals have to deal with at some point. So here is what I have picked up from my all too regular experience in this area.
I find that the first step in overcoming a mistake is to own it. My first reaction and the wrong one, was to down play it. While this is natural, it does you no good and makes you appear more unprofessional then the original event. So don’t make excuse or point fingers compounding the mistake. Even if others contributed to the mistake you can’t control their behaviors, you can only affect your own. Most professionals will be willing to give you a second chance, but not if you can’t admit it.
My second reaction, being overly critical of myself was just as useless. Luckily, I have learned to go through this phase quickly learning to funnel that energy into something useful, but in years past I often got stuck. Guilt can be a good wake up call, but it also can prevent you from making amends and lead to further mistakes due to a lack of focus. A couple realizations have helped me to move on from this reaction. First, mistakes happen and very few are so bad you can’t recover. I still don’t like mistakes but I have come to accept them. Also, like the mistake itself, you have control over what happens next. Finally remind yourself of what you have done well. My speaking error, while not insignificant, doesn’t define me. I did a lot of impressive work before and during that event and can continue to do so in the future.
Next I suggest examining the mistake and determining how to move forward. This step is critical in the process of rebuilding trust and your reputation. Sometimes sorry isn’t enough and you need to show an understanding of your actions and commitment to learning. This is going to involve some self examination and feedback from others. The conversation can be with a mentor, boss or those who your mistake affected. The important point here is to listen to their feedback without becoming defensive. Ask questions and explain your thought process while continuing to own your actions. In this instance I became too focused on a couple of projects, was overconfident and failed to ask for help.
Now you need to apologize. In order to do this you need to know your audience and have good timing. The nature of our relationship, the degree of the mistake and where your audience is mentally are all things I factor in to this decision. The amount of thought and time I give to this process is often a good indication of how sincere I am and is noticeable to others. You also have to realize and be prepared for the fact that the receiving party may not accept it and that it might take some time to regain the trust you once had.
Finally, don’t let others hang your mistake over your head. A bit of grief, some extra monitoring and in some cases loss of responsibilities for a time is to be expected. Taking this with dignity can do a lot for your career, but if you have done what is asked of you and you remain in the dog house then you need to advocate for yourself. So after I get done imagining unfortunate events befalling those who do this, my second reaction is to lay out what I have learned and how my performance has met our agreed upon expectations. But I do this with the realization that I may still have some things to learn and that I can’t control the other persons reactions. If this doesn’t work, well I always have reaction one to fall back on.
Alright so now that we got some tools let’s all go make some mistakes and get some practice. The bigger and more public the better.
Shawn Rudnick currently serves as a board member on the membership committee for YNPN Phoenix. He previously served as Board President for Trips for Kids Southern Arizona. Shawn is a Nonprofit Leadership and Management graduate from the ASU Lodestar Center.
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