6 Things to Do When You Make a Mistake at Work

We all make mistakes. It’s part of life. But, that doesn’t make it any easier to recover (in the eyes of others and within yourself) when you misstep at work. We’re not talking about navigating a difference of opinion here, but rather an actual error that’s plain as day for all to see and know. It can be hard to move through a time or situation where you’ve fumbled, but it’s really important to recover and handle your mistakes in a positive way. Here are some tips.


(Photo Credit: B Rosen/Flickr)

1. Keep in mind that everyone is watching how you respond to this.

When you make a mistake at work, it’s important to remember that your bosses and co-workers will be paying extra close attention to you in the days and weeks following. Not because they’re worried you’ll make a mistake again, but rather because you can learn a lot about someone by how they handle difficulties. Real leaders earn their stripes during tough times, not by holding down the fort when everything is peachy. This is an opportunity to show them what you’re made of. Handle your mistake like a pro, and you could actually turn this mess into a good thing for you professionally.

2. Forgive yourself.

Perfectionism is running rampant these days, but as much as people think it’s great to strive to achieve the ideal outcome in every situation, a tendency toward perfectionism is not a good thing. Forgive yourself. We all make mistakes sometimes. You’re only human, it turns out, so stop taking yourself to task over it.

3. Take responsibility for it.

As hard as it is to forgive ourselves when we mess up, it is surprisingly almost equally hard to properly own up to our errors when we make them. But, bosses want you to take responsibility when you make a mistake. You don’t have to go on and on. In fact, it’s better to be brief. Also, talk about how you’re going to do things differently in the future, which demonstrates that you’ve learned from this and are moving on. Don’t shed tears or beg for forgiveness – hold your head high and be okay with the fact that you messed up, but at the same time, own it. Your boss will respect you for it.

4. Don’t blame others, even if they’re partially to blame.

You shouldn’t take responsibility for things you didn’t do, but it’s never a good idea to throw someone else under the bus either. If other people are partially responsible for what went wrong, leave it to them to own up to their part (and leave the worrying about it to them too). Just concentrate on your part in this. When apologizing for the mistake, discuss your actions only. Be clear and specific, but don’t bring other people into it.

5. Fix it yourself.

Carry out the hard work of correcting the error yourself as much as possible. Other people won’t mind the misstep nearly as much if it doesn’t put a whole lot of work on their plates. Minimizing the impact and the inconvenience of your foible will go a long way toward letting the whole thing blow over and becoming nothing more than a bad, distant memory.

6. Model the way you’d like others to respond.

Once you’ve done everything you can to own the problem and correct it, it’s time to let it go and move on. If you appear to have done just that, others will likely follow your lead. Project a confident, full-recovery from the mistake. Your energy and attitude will be infectious. Let it go, and move on. Others will be all to happy to follow suit.

Tell Us What You Think

How do you recover when you make a mistake at work? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.