by Rob Jenkins
Many times in my life, I have screwed up royally.
In fact, I screwed up this past weekend, as a soloist for a large church choir. The other choir members covered up for me pretty well, God bless them, but that didn’t change the fact that I had screwed up—I knew it and they knew it—nor did it change how embarrassed I was by the whole episode.
Okay, you’re thinking, but that’s not a professional screw-up. True. If I had been a professional, I probably wouldn’t have screwed up. But how about this one:
In my first year as athletic director at a small college, many years ago, the AD for one of our scheduled opponents called and asked to move a basketball game up so as not to conflict with his school’s final exams. I agreed, and we found a workable date a few weeks away. I then made all the necessary arrangements and adjustments on my end—or so I thought.
On the morning of the game, as I was helping our staff set up the gym, it suddenly occurred to me that I had not let the officials know about the date change. As a result, we had no referees scheduled to work our game that night. It’s hard to describe the sick, panicked feeling that sudden realization brought to my stomach, but perhaps many of you can identify.
At that point, I really had no choice. I immediately called the director of officials for our league, explained what had happened, apologized profusely, and asked for his help. He was kind enough to laugh it off and told me he’d see what he could do. A couple hours later, he called back to tell me he had three officials lined up for that night’s game. Problem solved—but not without a fair amount of sweat, heartburn, and crow-eating on my part.
From that experience and many others like it, I have learned a great deal about what to do and what not to do when you really screw up.
First, what to do:
- Own it. When you really screw up, you have to acknowledge what you’ve done and apologize to those affected by your mistake. It’s vitally important in this situation to appear humble—although sometimes that isn’t too difficult, because what you’re really feeling is utter humiliation.
- Take the necessary steps to fix the problem. As we’ve all learned from harsh experience, ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. However difficult it may be to fix the problem—however embarrassing it may be for you personally to do or say the things that need to be done or said—you really have no choice. You have to suck it up and make it right, as much as it’s within your power to do so.
- Ask for help as needed. Often, fixing the problem isn’t something you can do alone. You’re probably going to need help, which may well involve more humiliation and eating of crow on your part. Doesn’t matter. You’ve got to determine who can help you fix the problem, then ask for their help—whatever the personal cost to you.
- Figure out what caused the problem. Once you’ve taken steps to fix the problem you caused by your screw-up, to the extent it can be fixed, the next step is to do a little post-mortem on the whole episode. In this case, “post-mortem” may well be an apt description, because in addition to humiliation, part of what you’re probably feeling is mortification. But if you can’t go back over your performance and figure out exactly where you went wrong, chances are you’re just going to repeat the same mistake in the future.
- Resolve to do better. On the other hand, if you are able to put your finger on exactly where you messed up, then the chances are good that you can avoid making the same mistake again. That’s especially true if you pair your hard-won wisdom with a firm resolve never, ever to screw up like that again.
- Learn from the situation. Finally, make sure you take away something positive from the experience, something that will eventually replace those horrible feelings of failure and embarrassment. What can you learn from this episode that will help you grow as a leader, as an employee, as a person? I don’t necessarily believe life sends us these mistakes just so we can grow, but since we’re going to make them, anyway, we might as well learn something from the experience.
And here’s what not to do:
- Ignore the problem. As I noted above, however much you might wish the whole thing would just go away, it probably won’t on its own. In fact, if you ignore it, the problem is likely to become much worse and cause you more problems down the road.
- Make excuses. Our natural tendency, when we screw up, is to look for any explanation that doesn’t involve failure on our part. It can’t be me, right? So it must be something (or somebody) else. Just stop it. As I pointed out above, if you want to have any hope of salvaging the situation, you first have to acknowledge that you screwed up. There may well be mitigating factors, but no one wants to hear about them right now. No one is interested in your self-justification. They just want to know what you’re going to do to fix it. You can look at all the contributing factors later, during the post-mortem.
- Blame others. Hand in hand with making excuses is the temptation to blame others. The desire to find a scapegoat comes from the same ugly place in our souls but is no more legitimate than the need to blame circumstances. Again, others may have been involved. Some of them may be even more to blame than you. But as a leader, you have to be out front and take the first hit. Also, placing too much of the blame on others while failing to recognize and take responsibility for your own culpability won’t help you avoid making the same mistake in the future.
- Tell “white lies.” Another natural (and unattractive) tendency most of us have when we’ve done something that makes us look bad is to try to cover up for it by telling what we call “white lies.” In many cases, these are actually big lies, designed to deny or shift responsibility for the screw-up. Besides the fact that this will almost always come back to bite us—as Shakespeare said, the truth will out—the real problem is that we’re not just lying to our colleagues or bosses; we’re lying to ourselves. In the long run, even if we get away with it, that isn’t going to help us do better next time.
- Quit. Above all, whatever you do, don’t let this one mistake define you—and definitely do not let it deter you from doing good work or things you enjoy. When you first realize how badly you screwed up, you might just want dig a hole and crawl into it. Or change your name, withdraw all your savings, and move to Montana. But as you own up to your mistake and take steps to repair the damage, as painful as that may be at first, you will find yourself coming to terms with the fact that, just like everyone else, you aren’t perfect—but you CAN be better. And that realization, in turn, will give you a renewed dedication to your work.
After I screwed up so badly at our concert, I apologized to the other choir members, all of whom were very understanding and forgiving—in large part because they’ve all made similar mistakes themselves, at one time or another. I’ve also begun taking steps to insure that, next time, I’ll be better equipped and prepared. But I am certainly not going to stop singing—even if there may be some out there who wish I would.