It’s everyone’s work nightmare: You send the wrong email to the wrong person.
Google executive Jenny Wood did that at scale: She sent an email full of gobbledygook to 27,000 colleagues.
At first, she did what anyone would do: She sat frozen in her chair, panicked.
Then she did something very few of us do: She acknowledged the mistake in a very public, very productive way. In turn, hundreds of her colleagues reached out in support.
Let’s break it down — because Jenny’s story can guide the next mistake you make. It’s also proof that mistakes are only as bad as we make them.
Some context: Jenny is a friend. She also loves helping people achieve their goals. A few years ago, she started writing a newsletter and giving internal webinars about how to succeed at Google. It was a hit. Now her program, called Own Your Career (or OYC), has 27,000 Googlers on its email list, and Jenny is booked solid giving talks (in addition to still working her regular job as Google’s Director of Technical Service Managers, Americas).
A few weeks ago, Jenny dashed off a quick note to her team. She just wrote it in the subject line of an email, as we all have done, and then hit send. Here was that email:
But instead of sending it to her team, she sent it to the entire Own Your Career mailing list. Which means that tens of thousands of people across the globe just got an email from her that made absolutely no sense.
Jenny’s heart was racing. She worried about looking foolish. After all, she’s the one giving career advice all the time — and now here she was making a common blunder.
She quickly sent out an apology, explaining how the mistake happened. Then she stepped back and realized: This was an opportunity! Sure, sometimes we’re judged by what we create, but we are also often judged by how we recover. Mistakes are just a problem to solve, and people love problem solvers.
So she drafted yet another email to all 27,000 people on the Own Your Career list. Here’s what she wrote:
- - - - - - -
Yesterday, I made a big and public mistake!
Instead of sending this email to our core OYC team, I sent it to the full OYC alias of over 27,000 Googlers. Oops. Gut-wrenching mistakes happen all the time, so I’m turning this into a bonus OYC tip.
Here are some things you can do when you make a mistake:
Own it quickly, clean it up, and take a deep breath. It happens to everyone.
Recognize that not everything we do every day will be perfect. In fact, 50% of everything you did last week was below average!
Apologize directly to those involved.
Celebrate the unexpected goodness that comes out of a mistake.
Trust that Google is a company full of warmth; your fellow employees have your back.
- - - - - - -
Then she hit send, and waited.
More than 250 colleagues emailed Jenny directly. Nobody was annoyed at the mistaken email. Instead, every one of them was thankful for the way she handled it.
“This literally couldn’t have come at a better time,” one colleague wrote to her. “Thanks for continuing to lead by example & expose your vulnerability in a confident and productive way, Jenny!”
“In a culture that rewards success,” another wrote, “embracing the fact that we are not machines is hugely appreciated. For my psyche and my anxiety. Thanks a million for this!”
“I definitely needed this today,” a third wrote, “as I made my first pretty big mistake yesterday and have been focusing on it a lot this morning.”
Again, there were two hundred and fifty emails like that.
I asked Jenny what she learned from the experience. She said it’s simple: She always knew that vulnerability builds trust, but until this moment, she hadn’t quite appreciated how powerful it is.
“I have all these tips where I confidently tell people what to do,” she says. “But when I authentically and vulnerably told people about a legit difficult moment, people perceived me as at my most confident.”
Why is it so powerful? Well, her colleagues’ responses contain the answer: Many of them, in some way, referenced their own mistakes or anxieties. They’re comforted in knowing that they’re not the only one.
“People really struggle with this stuff — mistakes, imperfection, feeling sub-par, feeling judged,” Jenny says. “We don't talk about it, but it keeps us up at night and it distracts us from doing our best work. Getting this stuff out in the open is truly meaningful for people.”
So that’s how you recover from a mistake in front of 27,000 people: You own the mistake, and create 27,000 fans.