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How to Keep That New Job by Learning From Your Mistakes

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A friend of mine just told me his son got fired for "making too many mistakes" in his first job out of college. I recently rejected an applicant for having too many basic typos in her email notes to me, and she responded with a string of defensive emails (most of which included typos too).

My last post offered up tips for college grads seeking jobs. This one deals with how you can work on keeping those jobs.

As we went through our academic careers, we all aspired to get "A" grades, but sometimes we ended up with something less than that. No one sets out to get a failing grade or a paper covered with red ink. Similarly, no one applies for a job or starts a new one with the intention of getting fired. How you handle corrections and failures is every bit as important as how you work to achieve success.

I have vivid memories of the first time I ever received a terrible grade on a college paper. My first reaction was shock and anger. "The professor is an idiot," I thought to myself. "He just doesn't see my exceptional talents as a researcher and writer." But then I took a step back and re-read his many comments scrawled in red ink along the margins. He was not launching a personal vendetta against me. He was simply commenting on my work. I read each comment slowly and reflected on it. Then, after all the defensiveness had subsided, I asked him calmly and politely if I could have another shot at writing the paper. He gave me another chance and I ended up with an A.

Of course, you don't all get that second chance in business. However, some of the same rules apply. Just got turned down for a job? Received a mediocre performance review? Sweated over an assignment only to be told by your boss that you missed the mark? Here are some tips:

  • Remember, business is business. When your boss (or prospective boss) gives you feedback, it's not an insult to you as a human being. It's about your work qualifications or quality.
  • Separate the delivery from the message. Giving criticism and terminating employees are not always tactfully handled. In fact, many managers lack tact when delivering bad news. Attempt to pay attention to the message rather than your feelings about who is delivering it. Stay calm and just listen.
  • After you have had a chance to "digest" the feedback, ask for an opportunity to ask questions or discuss the situation. For example, if your work was deemed "unsatisfactory," inquire if your supervisor can coach you on how to do better next time or request additional job training. Most reasonable managers are open to having a follow-up conversation. If you have been fired, this conversation may not result in a change in the decision, but both parties will end the relationship knowing that you are still a committed professional.
  • When you face rejection or criticism (or even termination) at work try to pause and reflect on why it happened. Above all, resist the urge to make excuses or blame your failings on your manager. Be willing to own 50 per cent of the problem (even if you feel you only own 25 per cent). The truth may be that you were given a seemingly impossible deadline or unclear direction. But no boss wants to hear that he or she is the cause of mistakes. Just suck it up and adopt the philosophy that "the customer is always right." In this case, the customer is the person who signs your paycheck.
  • If you have an opportunity to offer criticism, make sure it is positive criticism. For example, "I really appreciate the fact that you've entrusted me as a recent grad to do this type of work, but because I'm coming up the learning curve, I'm bound to make mistakes. Perhaps we can work together on the assignment next time, or you can give me more time or pair me with a more experienced employee." Volunteer helpful suggestions but do not come across as if you are telling your supervisor how to do his or her job.
  • Resist the urge to go over your boss' head, whine to your co-workers, or run into human resources to complain. Unless your supervisor violates a law or slams the door in your face when you try to speak with him, attempt to communicate directly with the person you report to.
  • Do not obsess over errors or negative criticism. Distract yourself after work with fun, relaxing activities. You do not need an ulcer before you are 30.
  • "What can I do better?" is a question that every manager loves to hear. Ask it often, not just at performance review time.
Above all, learn from every mistake you make as you tackle new assignments. Even seasoned managers are subject to negative feedback and firing throughout their careers. Dry your tears, dust yourself off and move on to the next challenge -- perhaps a bit bruised, but usually wiser.