Remember: nothing, not even screwups, are permanent.
Levelling Up

9 things smart people do after they screw up at work

It happens to the best of us: No matter how much you plan or prepare, there are times when you just spectacularly mess up a pitch, proposal or gasp, even an interview.

The first order of business: don’t panic. Nothing is permanent, not even screwups. Things can shift and people can move on, but it takes some effort to read the room to understand how to guide that along.

So how do you know if it’s time to save your reputation or if you’re better off beating a hasty retreat?

1. Sit tight and plan to deal with it

 The worst possible thing you can do at the worst possible moment is leave in a huff or cloud of embarrassment. Try to calm down and continue or regain your train of thought, or at the very least excuse yourself before leaving the room. Take measured steps and ask if you can continue the discussion later, or tomorrow. You will not be at your best logic in the midst of a fight-or-flight response. 

2. Assess the situation

First, take stock of the potential professional carnage. Did you really mess up as badly as you think you did? Ask a trusted colleague or mentor to walk through the situation again- it might not be as bad as you think. If it turns out not to be entirely awful, follow up the next day.

3. Add the personal touch

 When possible, try to reschedule another meeting. Pick up the phone so you can immediately smooth over any potential awkwardness, or send a polite but conversational email or DM suggesting you meet again to clarify some issues. Be friendly. Be genuinely humble if you did goof in some way, but explain in no uncertain terms that while you might have messed up a point or two, overall you can fix whatever needs repairing. And then leave it at that. Fussing too much will further erode your counterpart’s confidence that you can do what you promised. And it probably goes without saying, but if you promise to fix something, you should do just that.

4. Learn from your mistakes

Okay. You goofed. Who doesn’t? Hopefully, it isn’t a regular thing.

Once you realize that you messed up, it’s time to ‘fess up as well, says Steven Grant, VP of Operations for Energy Solutions Direct. “Owning your mistake is the best way to ‘heal’ a situation,”

Instead of running flat-out to try to correct everyone else’s perceptions, instead step back and consider what you could do better next time, especially when it comes to a failed pitch or business deal. 

“While it is of course important to try and ‘save’ the deal, it is typically much more important for you to understand WHY the pitch went so poorly and learn from these mistakes, says Grant.

“A bad pitch is one thing, a life-time of bad pitches is quite another.”

5. Give it time

Pay attention to the cues given by the person or corporation you’ve wronged, because even in professional settings, people heal at different rates.

“Oftentimes, it is better to try and salvage immediately, however, sometimes it is best to let yourself and other party(ies) step back from the situation and revisit,” Grant says.

And in case you’re wondering how long you have to apologize or rectify a situation, unless there was a specific deadline, there really is no time limit on apology and “sometimes it takes a relatively, significant amount of time to repair a relationship” says Grant.

6. Take the high road

Even if  you have no hope of ever working with someone — even your boss– again, you should probably apologize and in person if possible. Grant says “You should always do what is right, regardless of what you THINK the future holds.  However, if you have already apologized twice, this should be enough and “over-apologizing” can simply annoy the person.”

7. Use a wingman or wingwoman

Despite what they’ve always said, you know that your parents probably did have a favorite. If you’ve managed to irk your boss but still know that your pitch has great merit, consider backing away and asking a trusted colleague or project partner to plead your case or at least re-pitch. Include your name and contact information on the pitch or deck, but make it clear that you’ve learned your lesson. In this way, your ideas and creativity will still take center stage, even if you spent the early part of the project with your foot planted firmly in your mouth.

8. Put yourself in their shoes and think of the big picture

And if you’re on the receiving end of the goof of the century, try to remember what it’s like to be on the other side of the equation.

“If someone messes up a pitch yet I know has a willingness to learn, I will coach him on what he did right, what he did wrong, let him take a day to regroup and try it again,” Grant says.

9. Let it gooooo

No matter how sincere your apology or clever your repair plan is, there are going to be people who choose to rebuff your efforts or completely lose faith in you. Sometimes the best business move is to realize that you can’t change their minds and just move on graciously.

Rachel Weingarten is a marketing & brand strategist and president of 729.marketing. She's a pop culture and trends analyst who frequently writes about business and style and the business of style. Rachel's a sometimes professor, teaching personal branding on the graduate and undergraduate levels. She leads corporate seminars on topics including evolving communication and spirituality in the workplace. Rachel is also the author of three award winning non-fiction books.