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How to make a mistake, survive the fallout, and keep the job

A mistake happens. It’s serious. It’s the manager’s fault. Is it survivable?

The best of managers make some of the worst mistakes, says Donna Flagg of the Krysalis Group, a New York management, marketing, sales, and training consulting firm. Flagg is also author of “Surviving Dreaded Conversations,” a book on how to talk through unpleasant situations at work.

Know how to respond to mistakes. There’s a lot on the line. The manager could lose the doctors’ confidence or even get fired.

With the right response, however, it’s possible to save the day and the job and move the mistake from the doctors’ memory to their forgettery.

Above all, don’t try to hide it

When a serious mistake occurs, the first rule is don’t hide it, Flagg says.

Bring it to the attention of whomever it’s going to affect – which probably means the doctors – so they are prepared for it. “Explain it, apologize for it, and get over it as quickly as possible,” she says.

If the mistake becomes public and there’s been a cover-up, the manager looks sneaky, and has just lost the doctors’ trust. By contrast, if it’s been admitted to in a professional manner, the manager looks mature and forthright. The job may be saved.

Face it and ‘fess up

The right approach is the straightforward approach. Go to the doctors and be frank: “I’ve made a serious mistake. I missed such-and-such a deadline and this money was overspent. I want to talk to you about the best way to rectify this situation. If there is any way I can fix this, I’ll do it.”

“Be humble, open, and willing,” Flagg says, and be prepared for the criticism that will undoubtedly follow.

Most people focus on explaining things away, often in terms of blame such as “Yes, I did X, but if So-and-So hadn’t done Y, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Keep to the facts, Flagg says. At this point, excuses are worthless. The doctors don’t want to get bogged down in a conversation about what caused the problem; they want to get it fixed fast and minimize any negative effect it might have on the practice. Get past the apologizing and get to the fixing.

Getting caught by surprise

What if the manager is caught off guard and hears about the mistake secondhand – from the doctors?

Again, be straightforward, Flagg says. Admit to being surprised and be logical about it: “I’m shocked. I had no idea, and I’m really sorry about this.” And move immediately into fix mode with “What can we do? Can we act on this now?”

Then buy a little time: “May I have a few minutes to think about this, and can we then revisit it?” Use that time to figure out what happened and why it happened and come up with a potential solution.

A ‘you’ solution, not a ‘me’ solution

Also determining the outcome of the disaster is the focus of the solution the manager recommends.

Home in on solving the matter from a business perspective. Focus on minimizing damage to the office as opposed to dodging discipline.

This is a dangerous time. Be seen as looking out for the practice, not trying to save the job.

But also watch for signs of doom

No matter how effective the repair, there’s always a possibility the manager won’t win, Flagg warns.

Watch for the signs.

Did the doctors’ reaction indicate they saw the repair as reasonable? Were they receptive to the solution? If so, there’s hope.

On the other hand, if they were appalled when they heard about the mistake and weren’t willing to discuss the proposed solution, take it as a bad sign.

Their behavior from there on will be an indicator of how they feel about keeping the manager on board. If they stop communicating or aren’t interested in engaging in conversation or if they start criticizing performance, the outlook is bleak.

The same is true if they ask the manager to sign something that goes in the personnel file.

And if they start whittling away at the job responsibilities, Flagg says”that definitely means they’ve lost confidence.”

On the other hand, if the response is “we realize you are doing the job of three people, so we are going to bring someone in to help you,” be thankful.

Show it was an isolated error

Once the problem is repaired, Flagg recommends that a manager “get over it and move on. Fix it and forget it.”

Don’t revisit it. Don’t keep telling everybody the situation is under control. And don’t overcompensate by talking about the good things I’ve done with A and B. All that makes the manager look insecure.

Get back to being the same person who was there before the mistake happened. No matter how unpleasant the situation has been or is now, Flagg says “you still have to come in with a smile on your face and say ‘how was your weekend?'”

That’s what shows the doctors that the mistake was an isolated incident.

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