No one likes to admit they made a mistake. Whether you mouthed off to a coworker, got caught sneaking in late, failed a huge exam, or got passed over for the promotion everyone thought you were made for, it’s tough to admit when things go wrong. And for nurses, whose jobs mean that other’s lives are in their hands, making a mistake at work can change the course of someone’s life.

A mistake has the potential to derail your career and possibly even ruin your reputation, but there are lots of things you can do that will help mitigate any lingering effects.

“Every single one of us makes mistakes,” says Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CMSRN, CEO and president of RTConnections, LLC. Nurses in organizations that are open, reflective, and willing to change systems for better outcomes are much more likely to report errors and prevent future mistakes.

Nursing workplace issues are distinctly different from some other working environments. “With nurses, one mistake has the potential of impacting someone’s life,” says Thompson, so any clinical error needs to be reported no matter how hard that is to do. But clinical errors aren’t the only way a nurse can mess up at work.

“New nurses have two fears,” say Thompson. “That they will kill a patient and that the other nurses will eat them alive with workplace bullying.” If a new nurse makes a mistake, she’s going to worry about her capability as a nurse, about her ability to protect and care for her patients, about her job security, and about her reputation. But experienced nurses are equally worried. They have a professional reputation to uphold and feel like there’s a lot at stake if they mess up.

Saving your reputation after a mistake comes down to a couple critical things—careful communication and your own actions to fix the situation.

Your Reputation Depends on Your Reaction

If the error has anything to do with a patient, Thompson says everything first needs to focus on the patient to make sure they are assessed and okay. Then, it’s time for some reflection of how the mistake happened and some reputation repair. Even non-clinical errors can impact a nurse’s working life.

What affects your reputation is partly about what actually happened, but it is also about how you respond and react to what happened. “Career management often has to do with personal branding,” says Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, co-founder and co-host of RN FM Radio and also known as Nurse Keith on the Nurse Keith Show. “Personal branding isn’t what people see, it’s what they experience when they are with you. How you react to a failure has a large part of how other people will react to it and how it will affect your reputation.”

In fact, because all nurses make mistakes, others probably aren’t focused on what you did wrong as much as your response. They are often sympathetic or just relieved that they aren’t in your shoes. “We think so many people are paying attention to us, but they aren’t,” says Thompson.

Make It Right

If you make a serious clinical error, you have to report it immediately. But what about those other smaller blips that impact your reputation or change how others perceive you? For instance, have you ever snapped at a coworker or a patient after a tiring week of long shifts?

“We all have the potential to treat each other in disrespectful ways,” says Thompson. If it happens, you need to fix it. “You have 72 hours to bring that up,” she continues. “Come back and say, ‘Can we talk about what happened? I feel bad about the way I treated you and lashed out.’”

Don’t assume the person you spoke harshly to will let it roll off her back, so make a sincere apology. “When someone treats you poorly, it kind of sticks,” Thompson explains.

Beth Hawkes, MSN, RN-NC, HACP, career columnist and founder of Nursecode.com, agrees. “Apologize where it’s warranted and acknowledge your responsibility,” she says. “Apologize to the right people and when you apologize, make sure it’s meaningful and specific.”

Don’t Fear Failure

Thompson, who teaches certificate review classes, says the number one reason many nurses don’t sit for a credentialing exam is their fear of failing the exam. They know the material and need the extra certification, but won’t actually take the test on the chance they could fail and others would find out.

If you have taken an exam and failed or you went for a promotion or a new position and didn’t get it, don’t let it stop you. “The worst thing to do when you fail is to give up,” says Thompson. “It’s a human thing that we like to be viewed as being competent, but we also realize we are all human and that we make mistakes. We aren’t all great at everything.”

Carlson agrees. If you keep upbeat and positive, people will mirror that attitude. “If you say, ‘I’m not a great test taker and I’m sure I can turn this around,’ that changes the tenor of the conversation,” he says. Now picture what the atmosphere might feel like if you openly berated your abilities.

Foster an Open Culture

Nurses are sometimes afraid to admit they made a mistake because they worry about their careers and their own reliability and capability. Typically devastated by a mistake, a nurse needs to be able to work through what went wrong, why it happened, and how to fix the root issue. Several factors influence if and how they will share details of an error.

There are so many reasons nurses don’t speak up. Fear of the consequences, embarrassment, or shame, are dominant. If you work in a place where mistakes are never discussed, you might be more inclined to keep quiet.

“When we are in a group or a culture, we do what others do,” says Hawkes.

A culture of openness, where nurses who make mistakes aren’t punished, shamed, or ridiculed, leads to better reporting and better outcomes. If a mistake was part of an overall system failure, then it will continue to happen if there is no one to identify and fix it.

Set an Example as a Leader

Thompson suggests that nurse leaders promote a culture of openness where nurses feel free to come to them. Leaders can let nurses know they are approachable and that if something happens, a nurse should come to them first. And leadership has the important role of stepping back and considering if the error was a system issue, says Thompson.

Leaders who can admit they made a mistake and that they didn’t make a good choice are more likely to develop a relationship with staff that is more trusting because it’s based in honesty.

Shaping your reactions to your own shortcomings or those of colleagues takes practice and awareness, says Carlson. And it also needs some careful thought. In the age of super-fast texts and tweets, thinking before you react is a sign of a good leader. “Taking a breath isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength,” argues Carlson.

Reflect, Don’t Ridicule

Reflection is part of reassessing what caused the mistake in the first place. But you have to do more than scratch the surface.

Did you have a bad day and snap at a patient? Well, your bad day is part of the reason you lost your temper, but Hawkes says you really need to root out what triggered your outburst. “You have to step back to learn from it,” Hawkes says. “To do that, you have to identify what pushed your buttons and what happened to precipitate that behavior. Any time your buttons are pushed, that’s a time to learn something about yourself.”

Nurses shouldn’t go over and over the mistake in their heads until they come up with feeling stupid. “Reflection is not rumination,” Thompson says. What matters is that you think about what you would do differently if you found yourself in the same position again.

Share Your Story

Sharing your own mistakes on the job is a healthy way for nurses to bring the topic out into the open. Hearing about others’ experiences helps you realize you aren’t alone and is also another way for you to learn from other nurses’ mistakes.

Thompson recalls being a new nurse and being so upset when her first patient died that she had to be escorted from the hospital. An experienced nurse, who had been through many patient deaths, walked with her outside and helped her grasp the overwhelming emotions. And although no nurse wants to lose emotional control at work, Thompson says she still feels deep gratitude to this nurse because she made her feel supported on the journey.

Hawkes clearly remembers making an error as a new nurse and the thorough tongue lashing she received from her boss. No harm resulted, but Hawkes was terrified that she could make another mistake. She considered quitting nursing, doubted her nursing abilities, and felt weighty shame. In the end, talking with other nurses over time and hearing about their own stories helped her. And, she says, making a mistake made her a better nurse.

If you are reeling from a misstep, Hawkes has this advice: “When you don’t know how to act, look to someone you admire and ask, ‘What would that person do?’ Then copy that behavior.”

In the end, making a mistake often feels like the end of the world. You might think your slip up is a topic among your colleagues, but it probably isn’t. “I think failure is hard for human beings in general,” Hawkes says, “but it’s hard for nurses because their mistakes can have such consequences. We are not making widgets. We are dealing with human lives.”

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Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer based in Bolton, Massachusetts.
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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