If it’s happened to you, then you already know that cold drop in the pit of your stomach. Whether it was a mistake or just a really bad call, you’ve just realised that thing you did (or didn’t do) has returned with a vengeance.
You’re in big trouble. So what do you do next?
This will come as a surprise to most of my co-workers, but a few years ago I stuffed up at work. Royally. As in, having one of those terrifying meetings and where you get handed a written warning to shape up or be shipped out.
Now, up until that point, I’d always been good at my job (actually, I’d always been amazing at my job). So this came as a massive shock, one that wiped me out completely.
In regards to the actual offence, it doesn’t really matter what I did. Nor does it matter that it wasn’t on purpose. It happened, and then some other things happened as a result of my actions, so my boss had to have a serious discussion with me about it and issue me the dreaded piece of paper.
The immediate aftermath
Here’s a list of what I did for the rest of the day:
- Cry in the toilets
- Pretend like I hadn’t just been crying in the toilets
- Feel really angry that this had happened to me
- Wonder if I was going to get fired and how I would pay my rent
- Contemplate running away to become a traveling acrobat (then realising this wasn’t 1920’s America, and I can barely touch my toes, let alone do a backflip)
- Try to work out what went so horribly wrong and wonder if this meant I was a terrible person
- Repeat from step 1.
Because it was a brand new experience, I had zero coping mechanisms to help me bounce back. I lost all confidence, not just in that part of my job, but in everything.
It was a downward spiral; the less confident I was, the worse I did my job, and the worse I did my job, the lower my confidence got.
I was scared to make decisions I’d made a hundred times before. I took no risks, which was a problem, because my job was always going to contain an element of risk.
I felt like everyone was silently judging me, while my boss was watching for my next slip up.
My personality changed at work too; instead of being myself and having fun on the job, I became quiet and reserved. People noticed. They thought I was being cold and distant, and couldn’t work out why.
Basically, life at work sucked.
Fight or Flight?
Now the fact that I’m giving career advice kind of gives away what happened next (…spoilers?) After some wallowing in self-pity, I looked at my options. I had two choices:
#2 : My most obvious option was to just quit. Clearly I was not meant to do this job, right? Nobody else was making such terrible mistakes as me, so therefore I must not be supposed to be here.
I seriously thought about quitting, but it didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t like the thought of running away, tail between my legs. I love watching Hollywood movies, and so I think my brain decided that this was the start of the third act, when the big challenge got thrown down, and the hero had to give it everything she had to come out on top.
Well, that just left me with option #1: Stay.
So, how did I want to stay? I could honestly have coasted through for a couple more months, hoping my boss would forget about me. But that’s not very action hero-y, is it?
I ended up writing a story, not thinking too much about what was going down on paper, but when I finished reading it, I saw that it was the tale of the plucky underdog, who realised this probably wasn’t the role she wanted to do for the rest of her life, but still had a lot to prove. This character went back to work and gave it her all, because she was dammned if she was going to be beaten by one silly decision.
My plan boiled down to: stay and kick butt. Be so great that if you do leave, everyone will be shocked and miss you terribly.
What happened next
Now actually doing that was more of a challenge than just writing down a story. I had to have serious thoughts about what I was doing and how I was doing it. I had to decide to be brave again and trust that I was mostly quite good at what I did.
Mostly though, I learned that everyone makes mistakes. It’s ok to stuff up. It’s even ok to fuck up royally every now and then, because that’s usually when the biggest changes happen.
Sometimes that criticism will be warranted, and that’s cool; listen, take it on board and change what you need to change. Other times, it might just be someone’s perspective that what you’re doing is wrong.
Maybe what you’re doing affects them in a negative way, and they’d much prefer that you stop, even though you’re doing the right thing. I’m not here to tell you to pick a fight with someone if they tell you to change something, but it’s also ok to take a second and decide for yourself if their feedback is fair and justified.
So, did you win?
That experience was a little while ago now, and even though it wasn’t the most enjoyable time of my life, the benefit of hindsight means that I can really appreciate what I learned from it. I’m a little bit tougher now, and a little bit wiser (I hope!).
When people give me constructive criticism I find it a lot easier to take, and I can separate what they’re saying about my work performance from who I am as a person.
Eventually, I moved on from that role. Everyone was shocked and missed me horribly. (mission accomplished!). The next role that I got was actually through a recommendation of a person I’d worked with in the job, which definitely wouldn’t have happened if I’d cut and run.
Dealing with your own f*#kup moment
Now, I’m also not here to tell you to stay in a job if it’s a terrible situation or affects your mental health; everyone’s different and you have to look after yourself.
All I’m saying is: if this happens to you, when this happens to you (because we’re all human and we all stuff up eventually), please be kind to yourself. Be prepared to feel like crap for a little while, and then have a good think about how you want to proceed.
If you decide you need to get out (or you’re told to get out) then go. Try to do it with as much class as possible, because you never know who’s friends with who.
If you decide to stay, make it a conscious decision. Face that challenge head on, get some help from someone you trust and accept that it might take a while before you get back on track. But once you are, I promise you, it’ll be with more wisdom and experience than before, and the people that matter will respect you all the more for facing your fuckup.
Made a mistake at work yourself? Join our private Facebook group, Team Grownup for tips, support and a friendly ear.