What To Do When You’ve Made a Mistake at Work

What To Do When You’ve Made a Mistake at Work

To err is human; to forgive, divine. Too bad your boss isn’t a deity (except in her or his own mind).

Given that there’s almost no chance of making it to retirement without ever making a mistake, how do you cope when you do mess up – without losing your job or your reputation?

1. Take a beat.

Your first instinct, upon realizing that you’ve made a mistake at work, probably will be either to hide it as fast as you can – or prostrate yourself at your boss’s feet and beg for mercy. Don’t do either one of these.

Instead, put on the brakes as fast as you can and contain the situation. Then, take a moment to get your bearings. Go for a walk around the block, if you can. Take a few deep breaths and let them out slowly. Meditate. Do whatever you have to do to slow your racing pulse and give yourself a little mental distance, so that you can assess the situation accurately.

2. Do a postmortem.

Now that you’re past the panic stage, you can get a better idea of what the actual situation is, and what you need to do about it. Nine times out of 10, what seemed like a real career-ender when you first spotted your error will turn out to be a minor embarrassment, easily made up for and forgotten.

Don’t focus on your part in the problem right this second. Think about what you would do to fix the situation, if your best work-friend committed the error. Map out how the mistake will affect the team’s goals, your co-workers, the company at large, and think about how to fix things.

Next, figure out how to avoid making a similar mistake in the future. Good can come of mistakes, if you’re willing to learn. You might just prevent a bigger mistake down the road.

3. Don’t lie.

Whatever you determine during your postmortem, do not lie to your boss about what happened, or otherwise cover it up. You don’t need to beat your breast and cry mea culpa, but you shouldn’t try to conceal the problem, either.

Lying will only give you one more thing to keep track of, while you’re working on solving the issue. As Mark Twain once said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

4. Accept responsibility, and apologize – but only once.

When it comes to apologies, people tend to belong to two schools. There are the people who will never apologize, for any reason, under any circumstances, and the people who apologize all the time, and repeatedly, for things as trivial as forgetting how someone takes their coffee, or possibly for getting stepped on by another person. Both schools are wrong.

Apologizing is one of the most powerful things you can do for your career or personal life, but for that reason, it should also be something that you do sparingly. Apologize too much, and you dilute the meaning of your words and make yourself look less than sincere – and potentially powerless.

To apologize the right way, be sincere, be direct, and be brief. Don’t try to deflect blame onto another person. Do offer your assessment of what happened, and how you’ll prevent a similar problem in the future.

5. Forgive yourself.

It never feels good to make a mistake. Even if your current gig isn’t exactly your dream job, you still want to do well at it. Plus, it’s just embarrassing to have to admit a screw-up. It’s not surprisingly if you find it hard to let it go, even after making amends and moving on.

If you’re waking up at night, muttering, “stupid, stupid, stupid,” like a corporate incarnation of that composer muppet on Sesame Street who kept banging his head into the keyboard, remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes – your boss, your seemingly perfect co-worker, famous entrepreneurs, and so on.

Give yourself a break. Chances are, you’d never be as hard on a colleague as you’re being on yourself. Forgive yourself, and move on to the next challenge.

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  • December 1, 2020