Oops! The Mistake That Still Haunts Me 15 Years Later

Live by the words of Miles Davis: “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” If things go wrong, work hard to make them right.

Many years ago, I worked at a large investment bank. Around the holidays, my boss received a small box of Godiva chocolates from an old client. Right before he left for a business trip, he told our team we could help ourselves to the candy. One snowy, busy day, when I had no time to eat lunch, I inadvertently ate all of the chocolates. When I realized what I had done, I placed the empty box back on my boss’s shelf and pretended it didn’t happen. When he returned from his trip and saw his chocolates were gone, he angrily asked me who ate them all. I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing.

This is one way to handle a tough situation. Silence. Praying it will just go away.

But there is another way. A better way.

  • Accept it. You made the mistake. It is what it is. Now own up to it and accept it with grace. Don’t blame others. Don’t try to make excuses and get defensive.

Say you are sorry. Any which way you can. With crazy schedules, sometimes you don’t see the person or group you wronged for weeks on end. Apologizing through e-mail doesn’t make things worse. It can only make things better. Just say those magic words, “I’m sorry,” whether in person, on the phone, or in an e-mail. Authentically and whole-heartedly. Not “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry things turned out like this.” Or worst of all, “I’m sorry, but….” Just “I’m sorry” because I did it and I accept it.

  • Change it. Making a mistake once is usually not the problem—it is when you don’t learn from it and make the same mistake again. Don’t continue down an unproductive path. After the blunder happens, reflect on it. Think about what you could have done differently. Why did it happen in the first place? Were there too many cooks in the kitchen? Did you take on more than you could handle? Was your timeline unreasonable? Did you ask for help if you needed it? The post mortem is important.

Make the changes you need to make to fix the problem. Enhance the traits within you that are great, and fix character flaws that cloud your judgment. We repair damage in our lives and grow not by dwelling on the problem but by focusing on the solution.

  • Move on. Maybe your mistake cost your organization money. You may have hurt someone else’s feelings. Perhaps you tarnished your personal brand temporarily. But you did not, and will not, single-handedly end the world. It is not the worst thing that has ever happened. Quietly endure the consequences you brought on with your actions and get on with life. Often, people remember how you handled the mistake long after the mistake itself.

I should have taken my own advice 15 years ago. As I type this, I still think about that box of chocolates and the shame that accompanied my lack of admission of guilt. But finally, after all this time, a solution just came to me. Why didn’t I replace the chocolate with a new box? The solution is usually simple. Reframe the situation—I shouldn’t have spent so much time thinking about how much trouble I was going to get in by admitting what I had done. Rather, I should have thought about how I could have made amends to my boss, the person I wronged.

Live by the words of Miles Davis: “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” If things go wrong, work hard to make them right.

Rachel Lamb is a consultant at Exec|Comm, a communication skills training firm based in NYC. She helps clients across the globe present, lead meetings, and write with confidence and passion. She can be reached at rlamb@exec-comm.com or 212.252.5863.


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