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What to Do Right After You Make a Mistake at Work

Face it: nobody likes to screw up at work. But between the never-ending email chains, the mindless meetings, the high-stakes projects, the spreadsheets and the changing priorities, mistakes are bound to happen.
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Here’s the good news: we’re all human, and we’ve all made mistakes at work (some bigger than others). If you do happen to screw up, take heart in the reality that all is usually not lost. Assuming you haven’t done anything that ethically jeopardizes your organization, you can usually fix your mistake with some planning and accountability.

The next time you make a mistake at work, take a pause, and consider these tips for bouncing back after an office screw-up.

1. Get Things Under Control.

Is there an immediate fire that needs to be put out? Do you need to step out of the meeting, un-publish something, delete a tweet, apologize, send a follow-up email, make a phone call? Before you do anything, get the immediate situation under control.

2. Survey the Damage.

Did the entire office accidentally read that sensitive email thread? How many of the ad placements were affected? Has the dishwasher flooded the entire bottom floor, or just the kitchen? What’s the stock price sitting at now? Before doing anything, get a clear sense of the actual extent of the damage, then take a few minutes to process the scope. Fight the urge to respond reactively, and instead get all your information together before alerting the appropriate parties.

When you make a mistake at work, don't just react. Put out the fire and gather information before you proceed.Click To Tweet

3. Document everything.

Take a screenshot of the post if you hit publish too soon, or save a draft of the e-mail you accidentally sent. Whether or not you think you’ll need it, it’s good to have documentation of the slip-up should there be a deeper discussion later. This rule holds true for pretty much anything: did you get into a fender-bender in the company car? Did you post the wrong piece of content on the wrong client’s account? Did you greenlight a project before checking with your boss? Before reaching out to discuss the mishap, make sure you’ve got everything documented — it’ll come in handy when running through the situation with your boss.

4. Make a Plan of Action.

How will you share the news with your team? Does the client need to know? If so, how will you frame the conversation? Before spreading the word to anyone, make a plan of action for how you’ll explain the situation. Need a sounding board? Tap someone you trust, and make sure they know you expect them to keep things under wraps.

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5. Mea Culpa.

Whether you flubbed up a project or offended a coworker, one the first things to do after making a mistake at work is own up to it. There’s power in admitting fault, and it doesn’t have to make you look weak or negligent. On the contrary, owning your mistake shows that you’re professional enough to admit when you’ve failed, and that you’re proactive enough to take action and find a solution.

6. Communicate With Your Boss.

Even if it’s just a minor error, and especially if you’ve already handled it, be sure to keep your manager in the loop. Keeping the mistake from your boss will just make you look shady. Plus, bringing the mistake to them personally gives you the opportunity to frame the narrative and reassure them of how you’ll avoid similar mistakes moving forward.

7. Learn From It

Finally, recognize that mistakes are fine as long as you don’t make a habit out of making them. Look at is this way: mistakes at work are critical for helping us understand how not to do business. If we never failed, we’d never improve. As hokey as it sounds, use the mistake as a growing edge. Spend some time looking at the situation, figure out why you screwed up in the first place and make a plan for how you’ll avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Tell Us What You Think

What’s the worst error you’ve ever made on the job, and how did you recover from it? We want to hear from you. Tell us your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Megan Shepherd
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