Dealing with Catastrophic Failure

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“I really messed up this time!!”

That was the subject line in an email from a young friend. I’ve altered it a little for this workplace-friendly blog. The email was waiting for me when I got around to my morning email check.

My friend started working for a small family-owned business a few years ago. Over time, the owners gave him more and more responsibility as they learned to trust him. Eventually, they let him manage his own location.

It seems that my friend made a decision that made sense at the time but turned bad. It was bad enough to cost his company a lot of money and it was bad enough that he wasn’t managing his own location anymore. When he wrote the email, my friend wasn’t sure of what all the implications would be.

Now what? What should he do? What would you do?

Your Terrible, Awful, No-Good, Very Bad Screw Up

We haven’t all done it, but most of us have. The only human beings that don’t have big screw ups are usually people who aren’t doing anything. We get things wrong. We make mistakes. We misjudge things. It’s what human beings do.

So, if you’ve made a big screw up like my friend, the first thing to do is realize that you’re not alone. Most of the rest of us are with you. That won’t change what you did, but at least you’ll know you’re not alone.

Own It

One of the things I liked about my friend’s email is that he owned the issue. He didn’t try to pawn it off on somebody else. He didn’t blame the lack of formal policies in the small company he worked for. He owned his actions and the results.

The only way you can wring any good out of a situation like this is if you own your part in it. It’s okay to grieve a little about it. It’s okay to beat yourself up a little. Just don’t take too long, because you need to start making things right.

Try to Make Things Right

When you do something that damages someone else, it’s not enough to just be sorry. You need to try to make it right as far as you can. What’s possible, and how that works, is different in every situation, but you need to go beyond apologies to fixing what you can.

What Good Can We Make of This?

That’s the question my mother asked no matter what happened to her. She assumed, and I’ve learned from her, that you can make good of almost anything if you try.

In my friend’s case, the good might come from developing some formal guidelines for managers at the small company where he works. I don’t know what the good will be, but I know the good is going to be there if you look for it. Then, when you’ve figured out what it is, you need to make it happen.

It’s Only Failure If You Don’t Learn from It

That’s another one of my mother’s sayings. Learning is sometimes the only benefit you can get when you screw up.

Don’t make this something that you do quickly and are done with. Take some quiet time and think about what you did, why it mattered, and how you could have done things differently. Record your thoughts. If you keep a journal, this is a good time to put it to work.

If the screw up is substantial, perform the above exercise more than once. Wait a few days, then go over the subject again. Three times is not too many.

It’s Not the End of The World

No matter how bad it is, it’s only the end of the world if you decide it is. I bet if you look outside, you’ll notice that the sun is shining and people are going about their normal routines.

Take a lesson from Jack Welch. Early in his career, Jack literally blew the roof off a plant he was responsible for. He learned from that and he grew from that.

Bottom Line

Everyone screws up, it’s what human beings do. And it’s not the end of the world unless you decide it is. Own your actions. Make good as much as you can. Make something positive come from your experience. And learn lessons that will serve you well in the future. It’s only a failure if you don’t learn from it.

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