So... you didn't cut off the wrong leg?
When I answered my phone, I knew my coachee was panicking. I knew because she responded to my "hello" with "I've made a huge [bleeping] mistake and I'm [bleeping] panicking".
We talked it through a bit and came up with a plan - so all is good.
But it reminded me that having a simple framework for handling mistakes is a good way to be prepared for the inevitable mistakes (and the associated panics). So here's my framework - feel free to use it if it works for you:
1. Sulk for ten minutes and then move on - one of the best pieces of advice I received from one of the best CEOs I worked for. When stuff happens, you get to sulk for ten minutes and then make a plan. Feel your feelings, but don't park up in them.
2. Assess the damage and maintain perspective - work out the scope of the damage but keep it in perspective. A few years ago, I made a serious mistake that I had to admit to my manager. After 30 minutes of listening to my mea culpa, she looked at me and said "So... you didn't cut off the wrong leg?" A brilliant moment of "keep it in perspective".
3. Admit your mistake immediately, in person or phone, not by email - front up immediately. It starts to rebuild the trust that you've damaged by your mistake (and if you get to do it before they have even realised there is a mistake, even better!). Doing it in person (or on the phone if geography doesn't allow for in person) says that you respect them and that you're owning your stuff. Apologise – but don’t overcook it, there's no need for the 30 minute mea culpa (see, I'm learning too!). Take unambiguous responsibility, don’t make excuses and don’t blame anyone else. I once overheard a sales person blame someone in the finance team for a customer error. The customer responded with "Well, why am I wasting my time talking to you? I obviously need to talk to that guy". It just undermines your credibility by blaming others.
4. Present a plan to fix it and what you’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. When you've made a mistake, don't bring problems, bring solutions. Make sure you are open to feedback from that person, maybe they have a better solution.
5. Ask for help - sometimes we make mistakes because we didn't have the skills or resources in the first place or maybe we don't have the skills or resources to fix the problem. Getting others on board with fixing it means you're more likely to get the best outcome. Asking for help also demonstrates that you are more focused on fixing the problem rather than worrying about your ego.
6. Do everything to make it right - You earn trust back by what you do, not what you say. So, yes, this might involve having to admit your mistake to more than one person, to working late, to finding additional budget, to asking for exceptions - get on with it.
7. Reflect – to make sure it doesn’t happen again and to learn some new lessons. As humans, we're pretty poor at reflection but go on, just take five minutes to think about what you could have done differently. That might just stop you making the same mistake again in the future...