How to Handle a Crisis-Level Mistake in 5 Steps

Everyone makes mistakes. Unfortunately, some of those mistakes are worse than others. In the professional world, no matter how experienced you are or how carefully you checked your work, you’re bound to be the progenitor—and the victim—of at least one crisis-level mistakes.

Email typos and miscommunications are rarely a cause for major concern. But when your mistakes cause a missed deadline, a substantial cost to the company, or even worse—a blow to a relationship with a client—it’s easy to panic. After such a mistake, depending on your history and your company’s culture, your entire job could be on the line.

Still, panicking is about the worst thing you can do. Not all mistakes are immediately fixable, but they are all recoverable in one form or another. The next time you find yourself on the brink of—or in the middle of—a crisis-level mistake, take your time coursing through these five steps:

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1. Mitigate What You Can as Fast as You Can

There’s something to be said for reaction time in most situations. For example, if you have a burst pipe in your basement, your first step shouldn’t be trying to repair the leak or even finding a plumber. It should be doing whatever it takes to stop the pipe from leaking more water—like shutting off the source valve.

Similarly, if you’ve made a mistake with compounding damage, like a mistakenly sent tweet or a faulty product currently in production, your very first step should be stopping any further damage from occurring. Pull out, cease production, or put a temporary fix in place to buy you enough time to take meaningful action. These steps will rarely result in a significant long-term fix, but will help reduce the damage you’ll need to repair in subsequent steps.

2. Do a Damage Evaluation

Next, do your best to take inventory of all the damage your mistake has caused, and be thorough. It’s easy to panic about the repercussions of a mistake when you don’t know the full scope of the damage—our minds tend to overinflate things to a worst-case scenario.

Deny yourself from doing this. Write a list of all the areas affected by the mistake, and assign a ranking or value to the degree of damage done (or how much it will take to repair). Having a visual will help you wrap your mind around the scope of the problem. While the number ranking system will give you a clear indication of your top priorities when it comes time to take real corrective action.

3. Inform the Relevant Parties

Even if you think you can successfully cover up your mistake, it’s a bad idea to do so. Instead, it’s far more admirable and worthy of respect if you get ahead of it. Let your boss, your supervisor, your client, or your partners know what has happened as soon as possible, and fully explain the repercussions (which is why step two comes before step three).

It’s not enough to simply admit that you made a mistake, however. You also need to explain that you’re in the process of putting together an action plan. If you need more details to do so, or you need some advice from one of the higher-ups, now is your chance to do it. The next step is perhaps the most important, even though it’s one of the last steps you’ll take.

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4. Come Up With an Action Plan and Update the Relevant Parties

Your action plan should not be reactionary—the only reactionary measure you need to take is one that mitigates or prevents any further damage. Instead, your action plan should be carefully thought out and evaluated for weaknesses. Your goal here is to rectify any damages your mistake has caused, and might include apologies, cost recovery options, or long-term corrections to company structures.

Begin executing your action plan as quickly and efficiently as possible without compromising the strength or integrity of your plan. It’s also a good idea to reach back out to the invested parties and let them know that you’re officially in the process of rectifying the error. Such a status update can quell many concerns and speak volumes about your aptitude at recovering from a crisis.

5. Learn and Take Precautionary Measures

Finally, once your action plan has been completed or is in the final stages of execution, take some time to reflect about your mistake. Why did this happen? What led you to make this decision, and what circumstances led it to occur? These types of questions will help you identify the cause of the error, which in turn can help you understand the nature of the problem as a whole. From there, it’s on you to take a proactive, cautionary role and make institutional or individual changes that prevent similar mistakes from happening in the future. Don’t dwell on your mistakes, but do whatever it takes to learn from them.

Unless you’ve done something truly egregious, chances are your mistake won’t cost you your career. Try not to worry about the ramifications of the error, and instead direct all your efforts to fixing, ameliorating or preventing it from happening in the future. Your actions to correct the mistake will speak louder than those that caused it, so tread carefully and do everything in your power to take on the responsibility of correcting it.

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