Bouncing back from a work Gaffe

There’s nothing quite as embarrassing as making a mistake in your work, or in the communication of it to your clients. It is especially hard for A-type people like me who take pride and draw strength from their ability to deliver good or great results.

Fortunately, I have experienced my share of public failures. The first notable time was as the leader of the team in charge of producing year-books for my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) graduating association. It was a tough challenge gathering the data of members and designing the yearbook on a lean budget. Eventually, we were ready to launch the glossy colorful yearbook. It was when I was standing in front of the audience with my team during launch day that someone whispered to me that the freshly printed yearbook in my hands contained significant errors. It was embarrassing. I still recall that one of my team mates immediately disavowed me and walked off the stage. It turned out that the person in charge of submitting the final draft to the printer submitted an earlier version.

Another time, I led a panel at my graduate school’s Africa focused conference that drew the leading lights from Africa and the diaspora together in one inspiring cocktail of  ideas and networking. The panel I managed was on foreign direct investment in Africa. The panel had one of the highest numbers of attendees, but two of the panelists who confirmed did not show up, and the moderator was left to go off topic as the remaining panelists could not do enough justice to the topic in the absence of the subject matter experts. I recall the feeling of disappointment I felt as I observed the look of unmet expectations in the eyes of the attendees. Though I bravely moderated the question and answer session, and said the closing address, I secretly wished I could disappear into the ground.

This blog post is inspired by another gaffe I made recently, where a customer had a valid complaint about a product I just launched. I would spare you the details.

A work gaffe can be debilitating, however you can bounce back from it. Here’s the approach I take.

  1. Accept Responsibility for the Failure

Even if the mistake is caused by a team member or supplier, accept total responsibility for the failure. As a leader, the buck stops at your table. In the case of the year-book failure I described above, I never disclosed that it was someone else who caused the error. I took full responsibility for the failure and for making it right. When something goes wrong, Ask yourself, What about the quality of my leadership made this happen?

  1. Learn from It

An event becomes a real failure when you fail to learn from it. When you extract the lessons from it, that gaffe is only an experience. Debrief with your team, and examine the process or attitude that contributed to the failure. You can then develop new ones to avoid a repeat. In the case of my panel, I learnt that it is best to match the panel discussion to the most reliable talent you have, rather than having too grand a theme that only a few exotic experts could speak to. I also learnt that you need to keep communicating with your speakers even after confirmation has been secured.

  1. Make it Right.

As much as possible, try to go beyond offering an apology to offering redress for a sub-par work done. In the case of a physical product, offer a replacement. If it is a service, you can offer to correct the wrong done, or return a part or all of the payment returned. Even though contracts with clients may not require it, integrity demands we deliver the quality of work promised.

  1. Re-frame it Mentally

How we think about what happens to us is more important than what happens. It is important that we don’t tell ourselves a narrative that handicaps us. I see failure as a sign that I am stepping out of my comfort zone to a zone where growth happens. As Seth Godin said, “creating value is a high calling, go make a ruckus”. When I fail, I am comforted by the fact that I chose courage, and tried something worthwhile. I will choose failure over fear any day. More importantly, failure is not fatal. I am happy to report that I have gone on to lead and initiate many projects that went better than planned.

  1. Keep Attempting Great Things

 Life is too short to be timid. Keep raising your hand up and volunteering to lead new initiatives, even if you have failed before. Your resilience and persistence will motivate others to get dusted, and keep going.  An organization that encourages this attitude becomes a growing and learning organization, where creativity thrives and employee engagement is high.

To be sure, it is not enough to keep bouncing back from failure; we should also relentlessly develop our skills so that we are able to create better and consistent value for our clients. In sum, a work gaffe need not be a weight around your ankles that stops you from moving forward. Try my five (5) suggested steps above to bounce back from failure, and keep pressing toward your goals.

Cheering for your success!

How do you frame failure in a way that enables you bounce back from it? Please share your tips.





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