Unlike Taylor Swift, most of us probably can’t make a successful career out of airing dirty laundry about former boyfriends, baes or backstabbers. Instead, we have to pretend not to be gleeful when a work nemesis gets passed over for a promotion, or when the supervisor who stole an idea gets caught in the act. But no matter how tempting it is to have even a temporary moment of Schadenfreude, or celebrating the misfortunes of others, it’s probably smarter in the long run to find constructive ways to process other people’s work screw-ups instead of gossiping about them.
If living well is the best revenge, rising above (instead of gloating) is the best reward. Here’s why. In the workplace, where backstabbing can sometimes feel like second nature, gloating about someone receiving their comeuppance can make you look petty and unprofessional. It can also make other people on your team start to avoid you for fear that you’re counting down the hours until they have their own disastrous moment. So instead of planning a party after a loathsome cubicle mate falls flat on their face, here are some ways to try to turn it into a learning experience instead.
Understand the source of the screw-up
Larry Senn, author of The Mood Elevator, has been tracking corporate culture (some say he named it) since the 1970s. He thinks most of us can learn from the failures of others, and even try to help them, no matter how we feel about them.
“Life lessons are presented to us each day, it’s just a matter of if we choose to see them. If we clearly see a colleague at work make a mistake, looking at the situation through the lens of, “What can I learn from this?” is very healthy,” Senn says.
“It’s not only important to look at the actual mistake they made, but to find out what their mindset was that created the mistake. Was it a lack of understanding? Was it poor communication? Was it a lack of emotional intelligence in a situation? Knowing what was going on inwardly will also help you learn from that mistake,” he adds.
Stop. Listen. Support
Everyone knows the feeling of a plummeting mood and negative feelings that come after you realize you made a big mistake, says Senn, but how can you help a colleague after a giant mistake?
“One of the biggest things you can do for a colleague who messes up is to hear them out and offer support. The first step would be to listen, don’t offer advice right off the bat, wait until you can empathetically listen and if they ask for your advice. Then offer it,” Senn says.
Next up, you can try to offer support.
“When someone goes through a big mistake at work they often have a very destructive inner dialogue in their head telling them things like “I can’t believe I’m so stupid, I deserve to get fired, this company will be better off without me, how could I let myself mess up that badly?” The best way you can support them is to let them know that they are still valued and still appreciated,” he says.
But wait until they ask for help or try to talk about the situation before jumping in. Some people need time to lick their wounds before confiding in others. Senn says a great way to help is to offer outside perspective.
“When we plummet down ‘the mood elevator’ in poor thinking and negative thinking we often lose perspective so offering someone a more accurate representation of reality is very valuable,” he says.
Know when to steer clear of the problem
Before you wade into a conversation about mistakes, ask yourself what you hope to accomplish. Sometimes a corporate disaster is so huge that the worst thing you can do is try to help out, since you risk becoming seen as part of the problem.
“If a project is failing or has failed, the best situation is to stay as far away from it as possible if you are in a large company,” Marc Prosser, the Co-Founder of FitSmallBusiness.com, says. “A few months after the project is shut down or re-envisioned, very few people will remember who did great work on the project or tried to save it from failure. They will just remember who was involved in the project and that it failed.”
When something is that big or that bad, staying away may be your best option.
“If you offer feedback or make suggestions on what might make the project successful, you might get looped into the project because of your ‘enthusiasm’ or great ideas. Your frenemy may be happy to share the blame with you an expand the number of people responsible,” Prosser says.
Some screw-ups are so monumental that trying to help will only paint you with the same brush as the person who messed up. If your own reputation is at risk, stay away until you can do something to help them out without tarnishing your own image.
Try to assess the potential damage and fallout before offering any help or advice. One way to know when it’s a good time to step in is to determine whether the dust has cleared completely.
“After your colleague or frenemy fails, then you should extend the olive branch. Offer them a small role in a project which you are involved.” In that way, you’re offering them a chance to regain their reputation and they’ll work hard for you, he says.