How to Recover When You Make a Mistake at Work

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There’s no such thing as perfection, at work or anywhere else. All of your heroes have made mistakes. That includes business gurus, artists, celebrities, leaders — everyone.

As Hall of Fame NCAA basketball coach, John Wooden, once said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”

Messing up is part of life, unfortunately. However, when your oops happens at the place where you earn your living, the situation feels a bit more fraught. When you make a mistake at work, take a deep breath. What you do next will make or break the situation.

Learn to recover properly, and you can turn a bad moment into a life lesson that will build your career for years to come. Here’s how:

See mistakes as learning opportunities

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It helps to have the right attitude from the very beginning. Perfectionists tend to find it harder to bounce back after something like this than others do. That has everything to do with the fact that they see their mistakes as failures rather than as learning opportunities.

You really do learn more when you get something wrong than when you do it correctly the first time. You can hone vital, practical skills, beyond those that apply to your job specifically, when you make a mistake. For example, you might get better at double-checking your work, or learn to have another person with you during difficult meetings, as a result of prior errors. But, perfectionism stands in the way of learning. It can make you feel so badly about yourself when you mess up at work that it’s almost impossible to recover gracefully, much less learn anything from the experience.

So, before you even make a mistake, work on your perfectionist tendencies. Try to focus on viewing mistakes as real opportunities for learning and growth.

Handle it well when others make mistakes

Company culture can play a pretty big role when it comes to how mistakes go over in the workplace. So, do what you can to contribute in a positive way in your office. Offer to help your coworkers when they’re struggling. Be resilient and positive when someone else’s mistake negatively affects you. You’ll be glad you did when your time comes.

Expect it

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If mistakes are a normal part of life, then why are you so surprised when you make one? Chances are you’re forgiving when other people do something wrong — especially if they’re doing something for the first time or still gaining experience with a new skill. So, why are you so hard on yourself?

The first step to bouncing back from a mistake is to not be totally knocked over by it. It’s natural to get upset when you discover you’ve done something wrong at work. But, remind yourself that mistakes really are a normal part of life. You knew you were bound to a make a mistake at some point — and chances are that there are more mistakes in your future, too.

You’ll find it easier to work through the problem if you’re feeling all right emotionally. So, take a deep breath and relax. Remind yourself that these things happen.

Focus on solutions

Don’t allow yourself to linger too long on the negative. It doesn’t help anything to beat yourself up for the mistake or to hang on to anger toward someone else. Instead, start focusing on finding a solution.

Begin by identifying as many possible fixes as you can. You shouldn’t commit to any one approach. You’re just brainstorming options here. How can you take appropriate responsibility for this? What can you do to make things right?

Rather than lingering on your mistake, start focusing on trying to find a way to solve the problem. Doing this is constructive. But, hyper-focusing on your mistake is destructive and won’t help.

Admit it

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Most career experts agree that it’s essential that you admit it when you make a mistake at work. Doing so demonstrates your professionalism and your maturity. But, be careful not to use language that deflects when fessing-up. “Things didn’t turn out the way I anticipated” or “I’m sorry you’re disappointed” falls short of taking responsibility.

At the same time, you don’t want to go too far in the other direction either. You don’t need to fall all over yourself apologizing for a relatively inconsequential mistake. Admitting you’ve made a mistake is an opportunity to show that you’re an excellent problem solver. Being overly apologetic won’t do you any favors.

So, If you’ve made a mistake be sure to tell those that need to know about it right away. Be candid and forthright. Own the error and take full responsibility. Don’t deflect, or complain, or blame others. Simply admit your mistake and start to move forward. Your boss, or other interested parties, will appreciate your honesty.

Present options

After you’ve confessed your mistake, present some options regarding how you intend to fix things. Taking responsibility for the solution, not just the problem, will go a long way toward cushioning the blow. If you tell your boss you’ve made a mistake and simply leave it there, you’re asking someone else to do that work for you. You’ll show you’re really taking full responsibility if you propose a few different solutions in addition.

For example, let say you receive an angry email from a client saying that they aren’t happy with the way you’ve handled their account. Maybe you realize that you haven’t been as attentive to them as you should have been. And, you know you need to talk to your boss about the matter.

Once you’ve explained the situation and taken responsibility for your mistake, present a few options: “I just wanted to check with you before moving forward. My plan, with your approval, is to reply and say that I’d like to set up regular recurring weekly meetings in order to ensure better communication going forward. Or, I could also offer bi-weekly phone calls if you think that might work better? I wanted to check in with you before proceeding. What do you think?”

Folks in leadership roles have people come to them to confess mistakes and present problems all the time. So, it can be a relief when someone brings a solution, too. Doing this gives your boss the chance to solve a problem almost immediately upon hearing about it. Who wouldn’t like that? You might be surprised by how quickly and easily the conversation moves when you take this approach.

Listen to feedback


Of course, it’s possible that you’ll hear some tough feedback from your coworkers, or your boss, or from other people in your business, after you’ve made a mistake. Perhaps others will feel angry and they’ll let you know about it. Or, maybe a higher-up will sit you down for a talk about what happened. This can be difficult. But, it’s crucial to handle this part of the process with maturity and professionalism.

Try not to shut down. Instead, take in the feedback. You don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed about what happened. The key is to focus on listening, not defending yourself. Respond to questions as the arise, of course. But resist the urge to jump in and argue or explain yourself too much. Instead, take responsibility and stay focused on moving forward toward a solution.

Some of the feedback that you receive might not make much sense to you or even be accurate. But, chances are some of it is pretty on the nose. It would serve you well to learn and grow as a result of this mistake, and listening and being open to feedback is a big part of that. You’ll know the true statements when you hear them. You just have to be confident enough within yourself to really listen.

Evaluate what happened

Spend some time really being honest with yourself about what went wrong and why. Evaluate what you need to do differently in the future so that the mistake doesn’t happen again. Consider others’ feedback and your own knowledge and really take stock of what happened. Were you rushing from one task to the next? Did you miss a critical step along the way? If you don’t want to repeat your mistake, you have to really understand what went wrong.

Try to find the right balance with this. Don’t be too hard on yourself. And, don’t swing too far the other way, either. Imagine what advice you’d give to someone else if it was them who’d made the mistake. Thinking about it that way will help you gain a little distance and perspective.

Demonstrate growth


There’s a big difference between making a mistake once and making it a bunch of times. Engaging in the problem-solving process earnestly will help you learn from mistakes and not repeat them.

You don’t have to connect the dots for others. Resist the temptation to point out that you’re doing a better job once you’ve turned that page. Simply let your work speak for itself. There’s no need to bring up the past and remind everyone of your mistake. Once the problem is cleared up as much as possible, put it behind you. Then, start focusing on demonstrating real growth. The right people will notice eventually.

It really is true that everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you recover from them that matters. Handle it well enough and you might even improve your reputation at work.

Tell Us What You Think

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