M.J. Ryan
September 02, 2001

Back when I was a magazine editor, I once made a production mistake so horrendous that the back cover fell off of all 300,000 copies on the newsstand. Its the only time Ive ever cried at work. I desperately wanted to slink away into a hole and hide for the next decade, at least.

How about you? Ever made a huge blunder at the office? Maybe you took a foolhardy risk with the companys money, accidentally revealed a piece of confidential medical information about a colleague, or made a big faux pas with the boss. No one is perfect, as much as each of us might like to be, so its important to learn the best way to repair damage and move on in a positive way. Through hard-won experience, Ive come to see that there are three key steps.

1. Apologize the right way
You may want to get the apologizing over with by saying a quick “Im sorry.” But it sometimes can make matters worse because you may end up sounding insincere. In fact, theres an art form to a good apology, one that will create closure for you and anyone affected by your actions. First, acknowledge your blunder: “Yes, I forgot to check the figures.” Next, inquire about the impact your mistake had: “What effect did that have on you?” Third, explain yourself—not in a defensive way but to offer context: “I see that I was rushing. Next time Ill be sure to focus more.” Finally, inquire about how to make amends: “What can I do to fix this? Should I send a letter of apology to the client?” When you include each of these parts to your apology, you actually learn from the situation, and the other person understands that you take your mistakes seriously and handle them maturely.

2. Look to the future
If youre stewing over a mistake, remind yourself of something I recently heard personal-finance expert Suze Orman say: “You cant change what youve done, only what youre going to do.” Its a perfect message for giving up on the “if onlys” and “I should haves” that can drag you down. Instead of kicking yourself, figure out what you can do to avoid making the same mess-up again.

3. See the bright side
You can gain patience, humility, and even a greater sense of responsibility from a misstep. My big goof was one of the best lessons I ever got in letting go of perfectionism. When I summoned the courage to tell the publisher what Id done, he said, “Everyone messes up. Let it go.” Im much better at that now.

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