Sooner or later, no matter how careful or meticulous you are, you're going to make a big mistake at work. It may range from something innocuous to something career-jeopardizing, but regardless of the scope of your mistake, there's a certain series of steps that can leave you to a graceful recovery. Nothing can make the effects of your mistake go away entirely, but taking these steps in sequential order can put you in the best possible position to keep your reputation intact and make the most of a bad situation:
Step One: Remain Calm
Your first step is also the most important: Remain calm. When you make a mistake, especially a big one, your first response might be to panic, or start trying to fix things in a frenzy. However, letting your emotions take over is one of the worst things you can do. Take deep breaths, count to 10, and remind yourself that very few mistakes are irreversible. Think through the situation logically and calmly, and deal with your underlings and superiors in a collected, composed manner. It will help you find more logical solutions, and make you appear more in control of the situation.
Step Two: Assess the Damage
Now that you've calmed yourself down, take a minute to analyze the situation and see how much damage has actually been done. Depending on the context of your mistake, this could take a few minutes or a few hours. Try to think about the present moment as well as any ramifications this might have in the coming weeks. How is production affected? How is your brand's reputation affected? How are customers affected? How are your colleagues affected? Arm yourself with as much information as possible before taking your recovery any further.
Step Three: Prevent Any Further Damage From Occurring
Some mistakes are made once and carry no further damage, but most mistakes continue to carry negative effects until they are addressed. For example, a flaw in production could lead to more runs of products featuring defects, or a botched social media post could continue to be seen by more and more people. Get ahead of the future effects by stopping the bleeding. Don't worry about reversing the effects right now; instead, focus on preventing any more effects from compounding.
Step Four: Admit to the Mistake and Explain the Situation
Once you've prevented any further damage from accumulating, take your mistake to your supervisors and the other parties invested in the situation. Admit to your part in the mistake up front, and be honest. It's far better to be straightforward with your mistakes than to try and cover them up. Explain the situation as thoroughly as possible, and let everyone know what you plan to do to recover. It's also important to apologize and show that you regret the situation.
Step Five: Accept Responsibility
Once everyone affected by the situation has been informed, it's your job to accept responsibility for making things right. As a first line of action, start healing the damage that was caused (if possible)--post an apology on social media, broker a new deal with your vendors, give your customers a heads-up--do whatever is necessary is to preserve the company's reputation and minimize the effects to its bottom line. Beyond that, own up to the mistake, and let it be known that you're prepared to face the repercussions. It shows integrity and a personal investment in your work.
Step Six: Prevent the Mistake From Recurring
Your last step is to take measures that ensure your mistake isn't repeated--by you or by anyone else. This starts with a root-cause analysis; determine the main factors responsible for making this situation arise in the first place. Is it possible to eliminate these factors altogether? If not, what steps can you take to improve awareness of these factors, and how can you improve your operations to prevent or mitigate these factors as much as possible? Making procedural changes, implementing new rules, and increasing awareness are fantastic tools in almost any recovery situation.
Everybody makes mistakes. If someone seems to never make mistakes, it's only because the person has been able to recover gracefully. Following these steps can't erase or overwrite your screwup entirely, nor can they prevent the inevitability of resulting consequences, but they'll earn you a great deal of respect in the process, and prove to your bosses and supervisors that you can handle yourself in a crisis.