Epic Mistakes: Houston, We Have A Problem


Everybody makes everyday mistakes at work; we send out the wrong letter or jam the copier until it breaks. Although those mistakes aren’t fun, they are also not catastrophic.

Epic mistakes are the ones that keep people up at night. An epic mistake can strike out of nowhere, and suddenly your whole world is in a tailspin. Before you know it, everybody is buzzing about it and you are right in the middle of the vortex. Your name could end up in the media, you could be summoned to the director’s office, elected officials want an explanation, your computer is confiscated, and you receive a subpoena for court.

These are the things that sleepless nights are made of. Consequences keep piling up and you are stressed to the max. You dread answering the phone or looking at your email. Dealing with epic mistakes in the right way can help you survive the current crisis and also present a number of opportunities. Here are some strategies for getting through an epic mistake.
• Bring it out of the darkness. As soon as you realize you may have made a major mistake, start talking to supervisors and mentors. Fight the urge to keep it under the covers; epic mistakes just get worse when ignored. Getting a mistake out in the open right away starts taking away some of its power. No matter how much embarrassment you feel, you can’t move forward until the problem is out in the open.
• Create a detailed action plan. Put together a team to create the plan including agency attorneys and communications people if necessary. A good plan includes immediate actions to stop ongoing damage, investigation phase where you determine what went wrong, and plans to avoid this type of mistake in the future. Add as much detail as possible into the plan.
• Reach out to other people. You take away the power of gossip when you discuss the situation with others. This is also a great opportunity to ask for help or ideas. The worst thing you can do is to withdraw into yourself and try to deal with it alone.
• Don’t let emotions make things worse. Everything we do is a matter of public record. Keep your emails brief and professional and do not delete or shred anything. You may be feeling edgy and overwhelmed, take a breath and a break when you need to.
• Do your best to maintain perspective. Most people are doing their best and acting in good faith when mistakes happen. Talking about the situation with your spouse or a trusted friend can help you keep things in perspective. If you are currently restricted from talking about the situation, you can still seek a counselor through your employee assistance program or insurance. Counselors’ professional standards ensure that what you say remains confidential.
• Seek the opportunity. An epic mistake is also an unparalleled learning experience. You are likely to discover opportunities where process can be improved and relationships strengthened. An epic mistake may also present you with an opportunity to work closely with colleagues from other parts of your agency, or other stakeholders.
Epic mistakes can really rock your world, but they don’t have to be catastrophic. Disruptive as they are, mistakes can provide opportunities that might not ever have arisen. The biggest key to getting through a major mistake is to gather up your resources, supporters and people who can help you work the problem, and get it out in the open. Keeping your eyes open for the opportunities can provide some balance to a tough situation, and sometimes the biggest opportunities are born of the most aggravating problems. Have you experienced an epic mistake? What were the surprising things you learned? Comment below!

Brenda Dennis is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.


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Becky Latka

Thanks Brenda! Great advice for mistakes of any size, but especially good to note if there’s an epic mistake in my future! Hope you were able to observe others and their epic mistakes rather than be in the middle yourself! :-0 If you were in the middle, you’ve survived and are now helping others!

Brenda Dennis

Trust me, this is born of experience. My mistake had to do with seeing something I did not think was right but not speaking up because I did not want to hurt the person’s feelings that put heart and soul into the effort. When it all blew up I was the one that had to deal with it. Keeping things in perspective during that time was an effort.