How to Handle Career Mistakes

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Unfortunately, at one time or another, everyone makes a career mistake. In fact, in many cases there is no way to avoid them. However, the success of your career rides on how well you handle, recover and learn from your missteps.

Consider this example: Tom, a systems analyst for a large corporation, believed that his technical skills were superior to anyone’s in the organization. In fact, his colleagues often came to him when they were stumped. Tom was sure he was on the fast track to career advancement, but every time he applied for higher-level positions, he was passed over in favor of someone else—often someone with less technical expertise.

When it was time for reviews, Tom began to understand why advancement eluded him. Although he scored near the top in all technical categories, these skills only accounted for 50 percent of his performance assessment. The other half dealt with areas such as people skills and teamwork—areas Tom hadn’t considered. After the review, Tom paid closer attention to employees with the best reputation and interpersonal skills in his company and learned to emulate their styles. He also attended some communications seminars.

Learning From Career Mistakes
It’s a myth that successful people never make career blunders. As most CEOs will tell you, it’s tough to get to the top without hitting some speed bumps along the way. Instead of letting blunders slow them down, high achievers analyze their setbacks and learn how to avoid them in the future.

But you don’t have to make every blunder in the book to learn from mistakes. You can also gain insight from other people’s missteps. The following are common mistakes people make at some point in their careers—and ways to avoid them.

Feeling Indispensable
We’d all like to think that no one else can do the job as well as us, but no matter how skilled you are, no company wants to feel its fortunes ride on a single person.

Contrary to what you might think, becoming too indispensable in a position may actually limit your ability to be promoted. Who else can do the job, after all? To advance your career, you need to identify and mentor your own successor. If you’re in a managerial position, look for high achievers in your department who have expressed interest in what you do. Find out what their aspirations are, and if they’d like to move up, give them increasing responsibilities. Take the time to teach them what you know. Your manager will likely be more willing to promote you if she feels you have a second-in-command who can take your place.

Taking the Wrong Job
Accepting a position without considering your overall career path can delay your goals. Too often, people are so eager to get a “foot in the door” that they take any job available, particularly if they’ve been unemployed for some time. In the short term, you’ll have a paycheck, but it’s important to make your goals clear when you’re hired so you’re not pigeonholed into a certain area.

If fiscally possible, it makes more sense to wait for the right position to come along. However, you could also take a position as a stepping-stone to another. For example, if you accept a job as part of a team that’s focused on upgrading a company’s software and hardware when what you really want to do is work in the Web technology division, you’ll need to make it clear to the hiring manager that you’d like to end up in another group in your department.

Staying in a Job You Dislike
You’ve likely been around people who are unhappy at work—they’re often negative and have few positive things to say about the company and the position. If you’re miserable where you are, it soon shows up in your attitude and your work. It’s better to find a new job you’ll enjoy than to potentially receive bad evaluations and few recommendations for future positions.

If you’re just uninspired or somewhat dissatisfied, however, take the time to look at the source of your unhappiness. Is it the job, the people you work with or the career path? Determine what the problem is, and work to address it. If you just need a few new projects to challenge you, ask your boss if you can expand your responsibilities. Managers rarely deny requests for more work. If you need a complete change, take the time to investigate your alternatives so you can make an informed choice.

Resenting Your Boss
More than any other factor, how well you work with your manager impacts your ability to be effective in your job—and how much satisfaction you derive from it. Throughout your career you may find yourself working for people whose decisions may be inconsistent and whose demands sometimes seem unreasonable. It’s difficult to change what’s not in your control, but you can take steps to modify your actions.

What do you contribute to your relationship with your boss and what can you change? For example, if communication seems to be an issue, ask your boss how he prefers to interact. One manager may prefer e-mail updates and another informal drop-ins. Some bosses prefer weekly project reports, and others only need one every other week. If your attempts to improve the relationship are unsuccessful and you still think the situation is intolerable, speak to a superior or your human resources department.

Displaying Irresponsible Behavior
Dependability is a foundation of career success and your reputation in general. You may be the hardest worker in the company, but if other people believe that they can’t rely on you, your opportunities for advancement are limited.

Punctuality and regular attendance are indicators of a responsible employee, as is following through on your promises. If you commit to something—such as giving your word that you’d have a project done by a certain date—make sure you do it.

While there is some merit to gaining experience at a variety of companies, if you’ve had several jobs in as many years, employers might question your loyalty.

Some managers might see a job-hopper as someone who is more concerned with her own career goals than the company’s objectives. Others might be worried about hiring and training a person who could potentially leave after a year or two.

Putting It All Together
An occasional career setback is to be expected. At some point, everyone makes mistakes. If you can learn from the experience, you’re ahead of the game. Making the most of bad situations will have a positive effect on your long-term career success.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology,, a leading provider of IT professionals for various initiatives, with more than 100 locations in North America and Europe.


How to Handle Those Day-to-Day Mistakes
Career setbacks are one thing, but how about those small blunders you make from time to time on the job? Whether it’s missed deadlines or misunderstanding a client’s needs, here are a few tips to help you resolve the matter and move on:



  • Evaluate it: Acknowledge that a mistake has occurred. Stay calm and realistically assess the damage.
  • Own it: Accept responsibility for the error, and let your manager know as well. He may get questions and shouldn’t be caught off-guard. Advise anyone else directly affected by the situation.
  • Handle it: Implement a plan to correct the mistake, and mitigate any repercussions. Take the steps necessary for damage control to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Document it: Record all of the details of the incident—how the problem occurred, when and how you learned of it, who was notified and what actions were taken.
  • Learn from it: Experience is a great teacher. The mistakes you handle on your own will increase your knowledge, maturi
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