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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Save Face at Work After You've Messed Things Up Pretty Badly

The worst has happened: You completely forget that you’re presenting to a major client today. Sure, you can whip together a presentation, but it won’t be nearly as good as it needs to be to impress anyone. Long story short: You’re screwed.

So, what do you do?

Here are four no-fail steps for cleaning up your mess so you can still show your face at work today—and tomorrow.

Step 1: Take a Breath

You probably know that your knee-jerk reaction to quietly slip out of the office and buy a one-way ticket to another country is probably not the best idea. So rather than making a rash decision right away, literally take a breath.

When we’re stressed, our breath shortens to “chest breathing,” and it increases our tension and anxiety. According to an article on stress relief from the Harvard Health Publications, deep abdominal breathing can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure. Because we’re so used to sucking in our stomachs, we rarely ever do the type of deep breathing that helps us relax.

If possible, find a quiet place to be alone for a few minutes and do some deep breathing. (And if no quiet places exist, your desk will do.) Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Then, breathe out slowly through your mouth. You should be in a better position to think strategically after that.

Step 2: Show Remorse—But Not Too Much

The apology-forgiveness script is an ingrained social contract. You apologize, we accept, and all is right in the world. According to a study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, people who showed remorse were seen as more likable and having better motives. What’s more, those who were remorseful were punished the least (because that’s often used to teach a lesson).

However, saying you’re sorry too much can impact how people perceive you and how you feel about yourself. A paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that not owning up to your mistakes can make you feel more empowered.

While apologizing can mend fences and begin to restore bonds, don’t fall into “default apology mode,” taking responsibility for everything when it’s not entirely your fault. (Related: Amy Schumer skewered this cultural tick hilariously.)

So, apologize, just once, using these four message points: Acknowledge the mistake, accept responsibility for your part, express regret, and provide assurance that the offense won’t be repeated.

Step 3: Be Solution-Oriented

Your manager can’t solve all the problems on her own—especially ones you’ve thrown in her lap unexpectedly. So, once you’ve acknowledged what happened, show up with a solution to help mitigate the damage.

Come up with a couple options to right the wrong. Present them all and then circle back around to the one you think fits best. Make a recommendation as to the course of action you think makes the most sense. Offer to take on the responsibility of implementing the solution. But, be equally willing to work alongside or support the person your boss chooses to address the fallout head-on. You might not be put at command central to do damage control because you have some reputation repair to undertake.

Which leads us to our final step:

Step 4: Regain Trust

According to David Maxwell, a researcher on dialogue skills and performance improvement, you can rebuild trust by becoming a person who has a reputation for going above and beyond.

Start right now, in the moment your big mistake becomes evident. A lesser person might run and hide. By showing up, acknowledging your misstep, and offering solutions, you begin to show your character.

On a practical level, start small. Since you dropped the baton during a crucial hand-off, don’t step back into the starting blocks during the biggest track-meet of the season. Offer to step in on small projects and show you’ve perfected your relay skills and can be trusted.

Once you’ve completed these four steps to mitigate the damage of a major mess-up, you should feel good about your ability to face your office again. Then, you have to take on what might be the most challenging step of them all: forgiving yourself and moving on.

Have you ever majorly messed up at work? What did you do to feel better showing up at work the next day? Tweet at me.

Photo of woman making mistake courtesy of Shutterstock.