1. Own your mistake. There’s no getting around this one. You goofed. And everyone is going to know. There’s no point in trying to hide it, especially if other people will be affected by your gaffe. The sooner you take the blame and let people know what’s going on, the sooner the problem can be rectified. Don’t just say you did it and then walk away. Pull the Band-Aid off and get right down to damage control.
Seek help if you need it. It may seem like a better idea to quietly fix it yourself, but the odds are you’ll miss something. It could be a more pervasive mess-up than you thought, or you could mess something else up in the process of trying to fix it. Be honest. Own it. And apologize. Then put yourself out there in the trenches until you set things right. People will respect you for your honorable behavior.
2. Get creative. After admitting your mistake, don’t just sit there and wait for your boss to tell you how to fix the problem. Draw up an actionable plan right away by determining the best way to do some damage control and then act on it immediately. When disclosing your snafu, have a few suggestions as to how you plan to fix the problem. Offer the best solution first to make the situation seem less dire. Show you’re in control. You’ve already learned from your mistake, and you’re already working to fix things. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get yelled at, but it might mean your boss will take note of your character throughout the situation. Handle this well, and minimize the damage, and you might maximize your boss’s good opinion.
3. Forgive yourself. Seriously, everybody screws up every now and then. Don’t beat yourself up too hard. For one thing, it’s a waste of time. For another, if you’re too busy gnashing your teeth, you won’t have time to learn from your mistake. So forgive yourself. Turn this failure into a life lesson, and use it to help make you better at your job. Use it to help you grow. Debrief yourself, alter your course to avoid similar fudge-ups in the future, and then move forward.
4. Straighten up and fly right. Even if you did all of the above, you’ll still have to earn back trust. Start small—get all your smaller projects off your desk, with efficiency and precision. Log these minor victories in quick succession. Then move on to bigger ones. Go the extra mile as often as you can. Little by little, your boss will be so charmed that he’ll forget what happened last month—he’ll be too busy reveling in the quality of your work this month.
You’re going to mess up eventually. What matters isn’t when or how, but how you choose to handle yourself in such situations. When in doubt, choose honesty, integrity, and good hard work to pull things back together. At the most basic level, your mistake means nothing. When you own up to your mistake and take action, your mistake actually help you to grow and become a better person. Don’t let your mistake shake you up. You got this!