You screwed up. Now what? 8 things professionals should do next.

It wasn't her.

We’ve all been there:
We missed a deadline.
We promised something but didn’t keep the promise.
We let a bug go to production.

Sometimes the effects are just annoying, sometimes they may have a big impact for other people:

  • If your deadline is “before that super important event” and you miss it then, well, an event like the FIFA World Cup won’t be postponed just because you‘re late.
  • If that bug you deployed to production messes up data and you need to restore from yesterday’s backup then you’ll lose today’s data. At least this way you can undo the damage…
  • …but if that bug causes a zillion mails to be sent out containing coupons for a web store then you won’t be able to undo it.
    (Yes, this is based on a true story. Interestingly, although it had caused some financial damage on the first days, eventually, it turned out to be the most successful marketing measure ever for that store. Still embarrassing for us developers, though.)

Sometimes we find out by ourselves that we screwed up.
But sometimes it’s other people who break the news – clients, bosses, co-workers, friends.

So, what should you do?
Here are 8 recommendations on how a professional should handle it:

1. Listen

First, listen to the person who is complaining to you.
Don’t defend yourself, deny it, wipe it off, ignore it or pull an excuse.

Be open.
Mind your body language:  avoid crossed arms, aggressive, exasperated or amused facial expressions.

Listen calmly, even if the other one speaks emotionally.
Showing this kind of respect and interest is the first step to restore your integrity.

You needn’t be mute all the time, though.
Ask questions: “what happened?”, “when did it happen?”, “who was involved?”.
Ask for facts – but don’t ask “why did it happen?”. It will only blur the facts and might lead to premature bias. Plus, it’s actually your job to find out the reasons.

2. Show you understand

Listening is good but you should also assert the other person that you’re not just play “the nodding game”.
Paraphrase what you have just learned.
Show you understand the impact, the problem that the other one is facing now.

3. Be grateful and show it

Always – really: always – say “thank you for telling me that”.
You may not always fully share the other one’s opinion but he/she talked to you – and that’s great.

Why?

Criticizing someone is tough. It makes people feel uncomfortable when they do it. Some folks go to lengths in order to avoid criticizing someone else to the face.
Anonymously? “Oh sure, no problem. Let’s post something on the internet…”
By email? “Yeah, and I’ll send it out late so the addressee can’t call me back today.”

But those people who criticize you do give you direct feedback although it may make them just as uncomfortable as you if you were in their position.
Ultimately, this means they care about you, especially if the criticism was face to face.

Be grateful for it and say so.
It will be the first step to restore the relationship between you and the other one.

4. Apologize

Say you’re sorry.
What exactly you are sorry about depends on the situation:

If you know you screwed up personally then say “sorry I screwed up”.

If you’ve just learned about the issue for the first time or you’d like to investigate some more before you “confess” then there’s still something you should always show empathy for:
Someone (who obviously cares about you) is having a problem, so say
“I’m sorry that you’re in this mess now”.

This way you avoid a premature confession but you still continue restoring the relationship between you and the other one.

(If you later find out you or someone else you are accountable for really did cause the problem then don’t hesitate to apologize for screwing up.)

5. Take responsibility

If you are personally accountable then say so.
Continue by promising you will take measures to prevent the problem in the future.

If you are not personally accountable or not sure if you are or who is to blame in the first place then, at least, say:
“I’ll take care of it”.

It’s important to show the other person that the time, emotional strain and courage talking to you were not in vain:
You’ll take care of it, albeit just delivering the information to the people you know are really responsible and will take it from here.

Even more importantly, this step should be the turning point.
So far you have been the “receiver” of information, the more passive partner of the conversation.
Now it’s time to become active.

You can start by saying that what happened is clearly not how you / your team / your company usually work. Continue by explaining what should have happened instead.
Say “I’ll take care of it” and start being the active partner. Assert the other person of your skills and your drive to fix and improve things in his/her interest.

6. Fix it, help fixing it

The most important task should be to fix the problem.

If you can’t fix it yourself at least ask the other one if there’s anything you can help with.

Restoring your integrity and the relationship is selfish if you don’t focus on the problem resolution first.

7. Learn your lesson

It feels strange saying this, and it might upset people who had to criticize me but screwing up is the best driver for learning.

Embrace it.

A lot of the things I know today, maybe even most of them, I know because I learned from having screwed up or being criticized for.

Analyze the problem, drill down to the root cause, research potential solutions, evaluate, implement… this is how I learned about estimations, deployments, hiring, quality assurance, project management, Oracle’s bizarre licensing terms and many more.

Also, use this step to make sure you don’t run into the same mistake or a similar problem for the same reason again. The first time it’s a tragedy, the second time it’s a farce. If you keep screwing up eventually you will lose credibility.

8. Follow up

You said you’d take care of it, so get back to the person who criticized you and show what you’ve taken care of so far, e.g.

  1. The fix. And ask if it worked.
  2. Show you care: ask if the other person’s problem has been resolved or at least mitigated.
  3. You will most likely have new, updated or revised information. Share it.
    Show you’ve worked hard.
  4. Show your lessons learned and the measures you have taken to prevent the same thing from happening again.

What do you think?
How do you handle negative feedback?
Please leave a comment and let me know.

If you like this post then please share it.

Happy hacking!


Image: my wild princess at the age of 2.
(c) Andreas Czakaj, all rights reserved.

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