You’re rummaging through your inbox, when suddenly, a message with the subject line “This Week’s Numbers Report” catches your eye. You open it, wondering what on Earth the sender is talking about. But as you read it, your breathing starts to intensify, your throat dries up, and you feel yourself sinking in your chair. You have a 20-page report due on “This Week’s Numbers” in two hours—and you haven’t even typed out a single page!
Hopefully, you’ve never experienced anything like this. But, in case you someday do, let me start by assuring you that you can untangle yourself from this horrifying scenario. All you have to do is take the following steps.
1. Stay Calm
When handling a crisis, the first step is to avoid panicking.
Sure, it’s easier said than done. We’re hardwired to focus on the negative, and it’s natural to want to freak out. However, right now, you’re going to have to work against nature. And if you don’t believe you can do that, keep in mind that it’s not natural to sit in the same place for hours on end either—but you do that every day. In other words, you can control your response to the situation.
So breathe in, breathe out, and ask yourself: “What can I do now?”
2. Assess the Situation
So, one of the steps will be breaking the news to your boss. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the first step. Resist the temptation to immediately email him—or worse, barge into his office—and have a meltdown about what a failure you are.
Instead, take the initiative to consider how you might solve the problem on your own. Try to come up with at least two possible solutions so that you can give your manager options. For example, in the 20-page report case, one option would be pulling together a one-page abstract and moving the project to the top of your priority list.
A second option would be to assess if there is a good reason for why the report should be held off. For example, did some major change occur that you could use to justify pushing the report back a week? If you can truthfully determine a reason why pushing your report back would benefit your boss (e.g., you could add an additional month’s data), you can offer an upside to your mistake.
Until you’ve exhausted all possible—and, of course, ethical—options, try not to act like it’s the end of the world.
3. Prepare to Make a Sincere Apology
When you make a mistake, you need to own up to it. It’s that simple.
It’s no fun, but it’s a step you need to take. If the very idea of apologizing makes you want to throw up, think of it this way: Your boss is human and has also screwed up at some point. That means she’ll be able to eventually forgive your mess-up (even if it’s massive). What she won’t forgive is an unwillingness to take responsibility for your mistakes.
So, face the people who were (or will be) affected by your action and say sorry. Don’t butter it up with excuses. Show a sincere regret for what you’ve done, offer a concrete way to clean up the mess, and promise not to repeat your mistake in the future.
4. Learn From Your Mistake
Think back to how the mistake happened in the first place. Did you miss the e-mail on the 20-page report because it landed in your spam folder? Or did you make a mental note to start on it the day after, only for that note to slip from your mind?
If the email got lost, make it a point to check your spam folder often. If you’re too busy to remember everything you need to do, use one or more apps to remind yourself of your to-dos. There’s only so much you can remember on your own, so don’t hesitate to use technology to your advantage.
5. Rebuild Your Reputation, Bit by Bit
Do you feel like your boss is looking at you funny or reminding you (over and over) about the upcoming assignment you’re working on together?
Yes, he might be concerned that you’ll slip up again. But the fact that you haven’t been fired yet means he’s willing to give you another chance. So take it.
Go beyond expectations. Help any co-workers who looks like they need it. Follow through on your promises. Show that you’re serious about not repeating the same mistake twice. Keep this up, and your mistake will be forgotten—or, at the very least, overshadowed by your sheer awesomeness.
6. Let it Go
You’ve probably heard this phrase—or Adele Dazeem song—one too many times due to Frozen. Honestly though, there’s no better way of putting it.
It’s okay to feel bad about your mistake. Feeling bad means you care about the consequences of your actions. What’s not okay is to wallow in self-pity over it. Just because you’re the one who made the mistake doesn’t mean it should define you.
You can try this trick to put your mistake in perspective, according to a study from the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute. Basically, if your mistake starts to pop up in your memory more often than you’d like, try to remember a non-emotional component of that memory. For example, when you read that email on the 20-page report, was it sunny or raining? What outfit were you wearing that day? Was it before or after lunch?
By remembering those seemingly pointless details, you draw attention away from the unpleasantness of it all and begin to see the incident for what it really is: A learning experience. Also, doing this sharpens your observational skills, which always comes in handy. (Just ask Sherlock Holmes.)
Forgetting a task happens—even to the best of us. So, take the steps above to move forward and keep it from happening again.