It happens to the best of us. We're working on a big project and lose focus for a quick second. Suddenly, one little slip turns into a big problem. Accidents happen every day -- just ask the Amazon employee who brought down some of the world's largest websites with a typo! The real challenge is how you respond after making a mistake.
If you've just made a disastrous error while working on a client's project, you may not be able to reverse time but you can absolutely control the future. Here are a few points to keep in mind:
It's alright to feel bad, but not for too long. If you just did something to seriously hurt your client's project, you don't have the luxury of a long-lasting pity party. Get worried, feel bad, apologize profusely, and then get over it. Frankly, nobody cares. If you want to survive this thing, you need to get to work at finding a solution.
Don't let your mind prevent you from fixing things. It's easy to say "move on" but sometimes our minds don't let us. There may be a lot of emotion, including fear of the worst-case scenario coming true, that prevents you from doing too much. Get around it by putting everything into perspective. Did the world blow up or did people lose their livelihood because of your mistake? Is your client really going to fire you over this? If you did lose the contract, is that the end of the world for you? Probably not.
Identify the issue right away. When you sweep a mistake under the rug, you may think you got away with it, but you didn't. You rarely will. If it's not today or tomorrow, at some point, it will blow up in your face. If it doesn't, it means it wasn't that big of a deal (so why'd you try to hide it?) or somebody else had to deal with it.
Accept blame when it belongs to you. Speaking of leaving others to deal with your problems, just don't do that. If it's your fault, own it. Others will see right through your cover-ups and excuses, and your references will quickly fade away. A terrible mistake may prevent a client from vouching for you to potential clients, but team members may sympathize. If you throw them under the bus, kiss that sympathy good-bye.
Find Solutions. If you've made it this far, then don't just walk away from a problem you helped create. Work with your client, team members, other departments, recruiters, whoever, to find the right solution. This may mean working extra hours (including some you won't bill) and having a bit of humility, but if you can quickly bring your client back, they will remember that.
Mistakes are a natural part of life and a crucial step in learning. Unfortunately we make them at inconvenient times and the more high profile they are, the worse it can feel. Sometimes we make mistakes that can't be fixed easily and that call from a recruiter telling you your contract has been cut short is inevitable. Other times, it's serious enough that legal action has to be taken (have you read our posts about Contractor Insurance?). Regardless, keep in mind that there will always be new clients, new recruiters and new opportunities. It's all about your attitude and how you choose to proceed.