How to Recover From a ‘Reply All’ Goof

January 5, 2017, 1:00 AM UTC
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The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you bounce back after making a major mistake?” is written by Kirsten Helvey, chief operating officer of Cornerstone OnDemand.

Mistakes are not enjoyable. They are, however, inevitable. I am of the school of thought that mistakes aren’t necessarily bad. I believe if you’re not making an occasional mistake, then you aren’t really challenging yourself or growing.

When you’re pushing yourself in new directions and confronting new obstacles, there will be inevitable missteps. And sometimes you just pull a major goof doing a normal day‑to-day task. But you can never take anything back. It’s important to remember that what you do with those mistakes and how you move forward will truly define your career.

I’ve made mistakes large and small—from the dreaded ‘reply all’ email mishaps to giving the green light on hiring the wrong person. Regardless of the size of the mistake, I believe in doing two things immediately after it happens: Own it and act on it.

Owning your mistakes puts you in control of how to remedy them. You’re not hiding or ashamed, which will paralyze your response. I’ve been in the unfortunate situation of accidentally sending what were supposed to be internal emails to clients. I owned the mistake and called the clients directly to apologize for sharing anything inappropriate. They appreciated that, and my taking responsibility allowed us to quickly move forward.

Inaction is what can turn a mistake into a tragedy. For example, when hiring for my team, I’ve occasionally encountered people who pass the interview process with flying colors, but then end up not being the right fit for the position.

I’ve made the mistake of recognizing that this person would not work out for the role they were hired for, but then doing everything in my power to try to fix that by giving them all the resources and extra leeway I could in hopes that they would be able to turn it around. Yet deep down, I knew they couldn’t.

Not taking immediate action to cut a weak performer loose hurts their teams and can affect the overall business. And though that person may not be a fit for their hired role, they are probably a great fit somewhere else. So it’s mutually beneficial to act quickly.

Interestingly enough, one of the smallest mistakes I’ve ever made at work turned out to be a lifetime learning lesson. Early in my career, I was an assistant receptionist for a big-time entertainment executive in New York—the kind of person that has five personal assistants.


One day, I got his lunch order wrong. He called me directly—screaming. He had five assistants he could have asked to fix this, but he wanted to make sure I knew I had messed up. I thought my short-lived career was over.

About a half hour later he called back and apologized profusely. He told me he was having a really bad day, and though it was no excuse, he wanted to apologize. He realized he had made a mistake, owned it, and took action on it.

That showed me that even if you’re at the top, you can still mess up in trivial ways. But if you hold yourself accountable and make amends to the people your mistake has impacted, you can recover and grow.

As a manager, it’s important to create an environment that allows for people to be comfortable sharing their mistakes and gives them the opportunity to fix and learn from them. And in turn, your team will allow you to make the occasional mistake as well.

Your mistakes don’t define you. How you handle them does.

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