Spring 2017
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CTDO Magazine

Did I Do That?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Learn to recover quickly from a workplace blunder.

Spacing out during a meeting. Accidentally sending a personal email to the entire company. Walking out of the office bathroom with toilet paper stuck to your shoe. Posting the CEO's name with a typo on the company blog. At some point in your career you're likely to make a mistake or do something unprofessional. When these slip-ups happen, instinct and emotion kick in. We feel anxious, embarrassed, and sometimes even ashamed.


Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of Emotional Agility, explains that embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion. It is "something that we experience in relation to others when we make a mistake or behave in a way that is against social norms or standards," she says. Martin Antony and Richard Swinson, co-authors of When Perfect Isn't Good Enough, add that we "assume that making mistakes will lead to some terrible consequence that can't be corrected or undone (such as being fired or ridiculed by others)."

But that doesn't have to be the case. In the event of a public blunder at work, the proper response can help you recover from the faux pas. You may even experience a few positive outcomes.

Stay calm

Embarrassing yourself or making a big mistake is unsettling, but you'll be able to think more clearly about the real consequences of the situation if you calm down first. The worst part of the embarrassing moment or mistake is the mental replay. So take a deep breath, clear your mind, and reassure yourself that everything will be OK.

Social scientist David Allyn, author of I Can't Believe I Just Did That: How Embarrassment Can Wreak Havoc in Your Life and What You Can Do to Conquer It, suggests changing your focus with a methodical task such as organizing your files or cleaning your keyboard. "Embarrassment leaves us feeling like we have lost control. Cleaning and organizing help us regain it," he explains.

Own it

Picture this: Your assistant walks into your office with an urgent problem and catches you watching cat videos. Yes, everyone watches cat videos at some point—even leaders in the C-suite. And doesn't it seem like people visit your desk the minute you check Facebook or call your spouse?

Instead of playing off embarrassing moments as if they didn't happen, own them. If caught watching a funny video sent by your sister, say something like, "You caught me red-handed." If a client asks a question during a meeting and you're discreetly checking email, show some humility and apologize for the fact that you were momentarily zoned out. Then hunker down and get back to work—in earnest.

Respond accordingly

According to New Rules @ Work, workplace embarrassments can be arranged into three categories: those that you should overlook, those that you should talk about, and those that teach you a lesson. For instance, if you walk into the wrong restroom before a meeting or spill your water during a working lunch, it's best to laugh it off. Having a sense of humor about small bloopers can show co-workers that you will have the confidence to handle big mistakes. Also, laughing at yourself can remind others that even managers aren't perfect—and subject to making embarrassing errors too.

Meanwhile, addressing someone by the wrong name can make us feel flustered, but it's not the end of the world. You can use moments such as these as opportunities to open the lines of better communication. Or if using autocorrect caused the misspelling of a key word in a board report, reframe the mistake in a positive light, and create new proofing guidelines for your team that will improve your performance in the long run.


Unfortunately, some mistakes and embarrassments are serious enough to jeopardize your professional reputation. For example, if you sent a confidential email meant for your boss to a competitor, you will need to do some major damage control. Decide who you need to talk to and approach that person (and only that person) with a clear, concise message. Start by apologizing, but don't drone on. Excessive apologies prolong the embarrassment and give power to the mistake. Then be sure to present some possible solutions for fixing the problem and ensure that it won't happen again.

Move on

Embarrassing actions can feel all-consuming. Give yourself a break. "A key part of moving on from embarrassment is to practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness," says David. "When you recognize that you are human and imperfect, just like all other humans are imperfect, it gives us permission to let go of the past embarrassment with the knowledge that we did our best."

And try to remember that it's not all about you. Don't fall prey to what social scientists call "the spotlight effect," which is the phenomenon where people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are. What are the chances that your co-worker is obsessing over the fact that you misspelled her name in an email? Unless it's a mistake that affects business outcomes for the organization, no one really cares in the long term. So the next time you stumble walking into a meeting, simply shrug it off, move on, and take your seat at the table.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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