Ask Annie

Can your career bounce back from a big fat failure?

September 20, 2013: 1:18 PM ET

Plenty of companies that want to be innovative say they encourage risk-taking. But what happens to your reputation when you bet big and lose?


FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I volunteered to run a big, visible project that was something of a stretch assignment for me, and I took an approach that was radically different from anything that had been tried here before. I really thought it would work, and possibly even save a lot of time and money over what we had been expending on similar projects in the past.

Unfortunately, and without going into all the gory details, it's now becoming painfully obvious that my idea was a bust. The project is way behind schedule, and my boss has put someone else in charge to "get it back on track." Senior management at my company is always talking about risk as an essential part of innovation, "fail often and fail fast," etc. But I've never seen anyone here actually blow it like I just did, and I'm feeling like the office pariah. Now I'm wondering, can I recover from this and get my "street cred" back, or would it be smart to start job hunting? -- In the Doghouse

Dear I.D.: Whoa, don't start updating your resume just yet. "We all make mistakes, if we're going to learn anything," notes Roxana Hewertson, an executive coach who is president and CEO of Highland Consulting Group. "You'll never forget this one, so make the most of it."

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That means putting your ego to the side and "truly understanding what you can learn from it, about yourself, and your business, in every way possible," she adds. Analyze exactly how and why your plan went off the rails, as calmly and dispassionately as you can. Then sit down with your boss, and perhaps the person now in charge of the project, outline why you thought your idea would work, and explain precisely why it didn't.

In this difficult conversation, as in so many others, attitude is everything. The wrong tone -- whether whiny, angry, or defensive -- can do way more harm than good to your already bruised reputation. Hewertson offers six tips for recovering from a flop:

1. Put all your cards on the table. "Even if you can, don't hide anything about what happened," Hewertson says. Anything less than total honesty is likely to make people start wondering if the situation is actually worse than it already looks.

2. Have a heart-to-heart with your boss. As noted above, the emphasis here should be on what you've learned from this debacle, and about where he or she sees you going from here. If you have a good relationship with your manager, Hewertson recommends asking how he or she recovered from a mistake, at some point in the past. Everyone has made at least one (and often many), and sometimes they'll even tell you how they bounced back from it.

3. Own it. Whether a setback like this sinks you or not is "not really about the mistake at all," says Hewertson. "It's about your character and how you deal with it. In most cases, people will forgive an honest mistake if you own up to it." That takes a willingness to swallow a big gulp of humble pie -- including, Hewertson says, "no excuses, no justifications, and absolutely no blaming anyone else, even if there were in fact others who contributed to what went wrong."

4. Apologize. "If there were external, or even internal, customers who were adversely affected by what happened, you need to apologize to each of them. It's best to do this in person, not by email, if you possibly can," Hewertson says. "Then ask -- don't assume -- what you might be able to do to make it up to them."

5. Think about solutions. Can you help correct the situation in some way? In your particular case, where you're no longer assigned to the project in question, that might be tough, but it's still worth looking into. If you haven't already done so, offering to help out the new project leader, in any way you can, would be both considerate and smart.

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6. Share what you've learned. It's not inconceivable that someone else might come up with some of the same thoughts you had going in, so "tell others what you learned from this, so they don't have to have the same experience," Hewertson suggests. If you can write a blog post about it for your company's Intranet, or pen a piece for the company newsletter -- something like the anatomy-of-a-good-idea-gone-wrong pieces that turn up so frequently in the business press -- you could save someone else a similar stumble. You'd also be positioning yourself publicly as a risk-taker (although not, in this instance, a successful one), which could boost your "street cred," as you call it, in unexpected ways.

Once you've done all this, don't dwell on this one failed experiment. It doesn't define you. Move on. "There isn't a successful leader or entrepreneur alive who hasn't screwed up," says Hewertson. "It's what you learn from this that counts. And, if you show some humility and don't try to shift the blame to anyone else, people want to forgive you." After all, as your colleagues are no doubt well aware (or should be), the next time somebody drops the ball, it could be one of them.

Talkback: Have you ever made a big, visible mistake at work? How did you recover from it? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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