How communicators can benefit from their workplace blunders

Screwups are painful, but you probably won’t make the same miscue again. Comparably, confronting a chaotic culture takes courage but can pave a path to pristine positivity.

How to learn from workplace mistakes

Sometimes it takes a huge, stinky mess to bring about greater cleanliness.

This is true in writing, at the workplace and in your kitchen. Mistakes and messes are a bitter pill to swallow for those of us with a bent toward self-flagellation and for people with lofty personal standards.

However, it’s crucial not to beat yourself up—nor run for the hills—when faced with embarrassing fumbles or sticky situations. Embrace the stink, learn from it, and use the opportunity to create cleanliness out of chaos.

Let us count these sorts of blunders as blessings:

The cringeworthy typo

Not long after starting at Ragan, I quickly dashed off an email to a colleague that started, “Hi Brenda.” The only problem was that this email was meant for “Brendan.”

Since that embarrassing goof, I take an extra pass to double- and triple-check that I have each email recipient’s name spelled correctly.

I have similar horror stories about missing obvious errors in print pieces, which is the fools’ gold standard for enduring editorial shame. I’ll skip the gory details, but let’s just say that in Spanish, “ano” is not the same as “año.”

We also write a lot about public relations—doing our level best not to omit the “L” in public.

Every writer/editor has words or phrases that bring back bad typo memories. I’ll bet you meticulously review those vexing words you’ve messed up before, don’t you? You’re a better editor because of those past faux pas.

The toxic culture cleanup

Many communicators who work in a toxic environment prefer to just put their heads down, fly under the radar and try to steer clear of the bad vibes. It’s far easier to avoid the ugliness, right?

That won’t fix things, though.

A bad company culture is like an attic crammed with decades’ worth of debris, broken tchotchkes, cobwebs, radioactive materiel and possibly a large family of aggressive raccoons. The attic will fester and worsen until someone steps in to confront the mess—and whatever toothy, territorial mammals have been allowed to run amok up there.

Do you choose to hurry past the attic every day and avoid the problem, or will you be courageous enough to tackle the turmoil? Cleaning up a toxic mess begins with acknowledging its existence.

If your execs are clueless about how bad morale and engagement have become, give it to them straight. Capture raw feedback in your staff surveys, and show your leaders how negativity is affecting employees.

The initial stages of a toxic culture cleanup can be quite painful or even scary—and it might require chucking a bunch of bad apples—but you’ll end up with a much healthier environment.

Run-of-the-mill blunders

Don’t beat yourself up over every mistake you make at work. You’re human; we’re all idiots sometimes. Look on the bright side, and view messes as an opportunity to leave something cleaner and better than when you found it.

Whenever coffee spills on the keyboard or chowder explodes in the microwave, just think about how much tidier it’ll be in 10 minutes. Note your mistakes in presentations, emails or reports, and envision how much cleaner you’ll be next time.

Use failure as fuel to improve. Don’t stress about the mess; it’s a sure sign of progress.

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