5 Steps to Recover from a Workplace Disaster

Learn a few rebound tricks.

By + More

Chrissy Scivicque
Chrissy Scivicque
Clint Eastwood knows a thing or two about bombing. After last week's widely panned "performance" at the Republican National Convention, he could probably teach a graduate level course on the topic. Thankfully, most of us don't have to deal with our mistakes being broadcast on national television. But they can feel just as embarrassing. And if we don't take the appropriate measures, they can potentially cause serious havoc in our careers.

So what is one to do if and when you pull "an Eastwood" at work (meaning you make a bad move that leaves everyone around you scratching their head)? Here are five steps to help you recover.

1. Take responsibility and apologize. Don't try to shift the blame away from yourself or make excuses about what happened. Accept your role in the situation and take ownership of it. It's tempting to run away, point fingers, or even ignore the situation and hope no one figures out your involvement. But this will only escalate the issue, create added stress on your part, and damage your credibility in the long run. In most cases, you simply can't hide from the truth.

Depending on the situation, an apology may be in order. This is one of the easiest and fastest ways to diffuse a bad situation. However, be cautious of saying "I'm sorry" too often, or apologizing for something for which you aren't really responsible. You don't want to trivialize the importance of the words or appear insincere. When done correctly, an apology can be a powerful statement that demonstrates strength and character on your part and helps ease the negative emotions of others.

2. Take action to solve the problem. It won't surprise you to hear that your actions have consequences. One poor decision can create a ripple effect of negative outcomes impacting other people, projects, and possibly, your organization as a whole. So, while saying "I'm sorry" helps relieve the tension, it does little to change the reality you're now facing. Evaluate the situation, determine how you can help repair the damage, and take prompt action. Show others that you're willing do the work to clean up after yourself. If you're unsure about what needs to be done, ask for guidance from a trusted adviser.

3. Explain yourself. No one wants to hear a long-winded excuse for why you made this mistake, but let's face it: they're probably a little curious. Who among us hasn't wondered what Eastwood was thinking as he dragged that chair on stage?

Offer a brief explanation of what happened and why. What was your rationale? Provide a little proof that you weren't completely neglectful in your duties. Perhaps you used some poor judgment or maybe you rushed into something without really thinking it through. Show that you're reflecting on what happened, looking closely at your actions and again, taking responsibility. This will give others reassurance that, while your intentions were good, you take the situation seriously and want to learn from it. At the same time, they may offer helpful insight as to what went wrong.

4. Define what was learned. The most important part of recovering from a workplace disaster is learning from it. Hidden beneath every misstep is a wealth of wisdom for the future. The No. 1 goal is to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again, and the only way to do that is to heed the lessons.

Articulate—for yourself and for others—what you learned from the situation and how you'll prevent similar disasters in the future. Your superiors will appreciate knowing that you're using this experience as an opportunity to grow, and perhaps your co-workers can learn through you as well. The more clearly you can define the lessons, the more likely you won't forget them in the future.

5. Follow up. Finally, once the dust has settled a bit, follow up to ensure the problems created by your actions have been resolved and to reiterate how you've implemented the lessons learned. This shows that you haven't completely washed your hands of the situation.

At the same time, don't dwell on it. Give yourself some slack and move on.

Channel your inner Eastwood. In all likelihood, he won't let one disastrous performance hold him back. But he probably also won't try his hand at improvisational comedy in front of millions again for quite some time. 

Chrissy Scivicque, the founder of EatYourCareer.com, believes work can be a nourishing life experience. As a career coach, corporate trainer, and public speaker, she helps professionals of all levels unlock their true potential and discover long-lasting career fulfillment.