Fred Snodgrass was a success. He was born in Ventura, California in 1887 and attended college in Los Angeles. He became a successful banker and served for three terms on the city council for Oxnard, California, then served as mayor for a little less than a year. Afterwards, he retired to a ranch in his hometown of Ventura. He died in 1974, at the age of 86, and was survived by his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren.
But Fred Snodgrass was also a baseball player for the New York Giants and he made a famous mistake. On a chilly Boston day on October 16, 1912, with the Giants leading 2-1 at Fenway Park in the 10th inning of the deciding game of the World Series, Boston’s Clyde Engle lofted a fly ball to right-center that Snodgrass, a normally sure-handed fielder, dropped. Engle made it to second and would eventually score the tying run. The Red Sox scored another run that inning and won the World Series.
We are amazed and sometimes incredulous when professional athletes – the very best people at a highly difficult sport – make errors. But these errors by such skilled individuals simply prove the age old truism of human fallibility. However much we try to reach perfection, we are imperfectible.
Those of us who are far less talented in our fields as professional athletes are in theirs are, of course, even more error prone. And just because our errors don’t happen on as big a stage doesn’t make them feel any less devastating. Making a significant mistake at work can be paralyzing as you realize the extent of your error and struggle to determine what to do. You can feel isolated as your colleagues try to disavow responsibility. Some people fixate on their mistake for hours, days, or weeks and their inability to forgive themselves can be debilitating.
But learning to overcome mistakes is a necessity in any career because you will never stop being error prone. And as you advance further along your career path and your responsibility grows, the more significant your errors will become. If you cannot get over your errors, you will not be able to grow your career.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions for dealing with mistakes at work.
- Do what you need to do immediately to fix the problem: We often freeze up when we realize we’ve made a big mistake. Take a deep breath and do everything you can to focus. Don’t think about what the personal consequences will be to you. Focus on what can be done immediately to fix or at least ameliorate the situation. We make some of our worst decisions when we panic and do what is expedient rather than what will help. For example, trying to cover up your mistake may throw off blame for the moment, but it usually makes things worse in the end.
- After the problem is fixed, vent: You aren’t going to be able to keep the consequences of your decision to the back of your mind indefinitely. Once you have done everything you can to make sure that the problem doesn’t get worse, take a break. Preferably, leave your office. Go someplace where you can scream. Hit something hard. Feel sorry for yourself a while. Then, speak to somebody that you trust and talk through what happened. This doesn’t need to be a constructive conversation. Share what happened to you and express your concerns for the consequences.
- After getting some distance from the mistake, think about how you’re going to deal with it long term: When some of the immediate emotional heat in the aftermath of the mistake has dissipated, sit down and think what actions you are going to take in the coming days and weeks. Return to the problem and consider what other actions should be taken. Is there anything further that can be done to fix the problem? Should steps be taken to prevent the problem from occurring in the future? Do additional people need to be advised that the problem occurred?
Now think about the problem from a personal level. Do you need to document what happened or provide a fuller explanation of what happened? Do you need to repair relationships with colleagues, superiors, or clients? How do you reassure them that they can be confident in your abilities?
While I’ve framed these recommendations as a few tidy steps, let me say this: None of this is easy. It is easy to ask somebody to stay calm and focus, but doing so is difficult and requires mental discipline. Even so, it helps to have a plan.
A final piece of advice: remember that mistakes that seem career crippling at the time are quickly forgotten as your business shifts its focus to the next challenge. In the business world, the individual worker doesn’t receive the same scrutiny as those that play on the baseball field. And even Fred Snodgrass, who committed arguably the biggest error in the history of World Series play, returned to his native California and thrived. In the long run, Fred Snodgrass was a success.