It’s impossible to make it though a career without making some mistakes. The road to success is often paved with a lot of failures. But what happens when you mess up big-time and your colleagues won’t let you live it down?
Psychologist Art Markman helps this reader figure out how he can get past his past mistakes.
I made what was probably the biggest mistake of my career a year ago. Without getting into all the gory details, it cost the company thousands of dollars and ruined our relationship with a client.
I apologized and have worked really hard since then, going above and beyond. I feel like it’s going to haunt me forever, though. Some of my colleagues continue to bring it up, which feels embarrassing and belittling. I also haven’t asked for a raise because I feel like no matter what I do, I’m marked now. How can I make everyone forget about it, or is it hopeless as long as I’m at this job?
I have never met anyone who didn’t make a mistake. And some of those mistakes have been costly.
The first thing to note is that you’re still working for your company. If the management thought that your mistake was the result of intolerable negligence, then you would not be working there anymore.
Second, it has clearly been a while since your mistake, because you point out that you have punished yourself by not asking for a raise. So, your bosses are clearly happy enough with your performance to keep you on.
From these two points, I would say you have been forgiven by everyone else. Now, it is your turn to forgive yourself. You made a mistake. A bad one. Hopefully, you learned from it. You will not do yourself or the company any good to dwell on the past mistake, beyond the lessons you can learn from it.
The next piece of this puzzle is that your colleagues continue to razz you about the mistake. That is a (perhaps unfortunate) part of human nature. We often remember noteworthy events about other people, and may even continue to mention those events long after they are over. In a lot of ways, this is just the adult version of the teasing that goes on in every elementary schoolyard.
You won’t be able to erase your error from people’s minds. However, there is no reason at this point that you can’t be part of the joke rather than the butt of it. When you hear about another company that loses money, you can tell people that you have been moonlighting there. If the stock market goes down, you can brag that you have trained many of the traders. By joining in the ribbing, you are engaging with your colleagues rather than shying away from them. At the point that you own that past event, you will complete the process of forgiving yourself and move on.
The last thing to say here is that if time has passed since your mistake and you are still worried about your standing in the company, then it is time to have a discussion with your supervisor. You can wait until your next annual review if that is easiest. If the company still has any lingering concerns about your work, they should let you know. But, it is also your responsibility to speak up about your own worries. There is no need to for you to keep punishing yourself for something if the company has already put it in the past.
I cannot emphasize enough that mistakes are a crucial part of learning. By holding on to your failure and treating it negatively, you are likely to avoid any other situation in which you might make a mistake. Lots of current research suggests that one of the most important qualities of successful people is self-compassion, which is the ability to accept your mistakes and to move on from them.
To help develop that skill, imagine for a moment that someone else in the company had made the same mistake you did at some point in the past. How much would you allow that mistake to affect your judgment of them now? You should treat yourself with at least as much compassion as you would show others.
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