So You Messed Up at Work. Now What?

Career Development

No one is perfect. And no matter how hard you try to avoid making a mistake at work, even the most diligently detailed, Type A personalities will find themselves red-faced and panicked about what to do next the moment after they realize they’re responsible for a setback.

A good manager knows their employees are human and they do have lives outside of work. As someone who employs contract workers, I don’t expect them to be perfect nor do I expect them to be 100% efficient with their hours. What I do expect is transparency when a problem arises and a plan for how to fix it. This makes it much easier for me to stand behind their work when a client is disappointed and allows us to create better work environments and workflows.

All of this makes sense in theory, but owning your mistakes is easier said than done. Sometimes mistakes can feel bigger than they are, especially if you’re a perfectionist or uncomfortable with confrontation. How do you reign in the panicky, sick-to-your-stomach feelings and make good on what went wrong?

Here’s some advice on what to do when you realize you’ve made a mistake.

1. Gain perspective. You can’t go back and undo what has been done. What you can do, is be honest with yourself about the repercussions of your mistake. Understanding how the misstep will affect the project and your team will help you assess how big of a deal the mistake is. Sometimes a mistake will feel like the end of the world, when really the only thing affected is your ego. When our ego gets involved, our perspective can get convoluted. Try stepping into the role of your superior. What are the immediate consequences of this step back?

2. Take ownership. If the consequences extend beyond personal embarrassment and affect the company, from a simple slip of professionalism to a missed deadline, it’s important to be transparent about what happened instead of trying to cover it up. Honesty and transparency go a long way in building lasting relationships with your superiors, and the ability to put your ego aside and be open about what happened is the first step towards fixing the mistake.

3. Make a plan. Once you’ve come clean about what’s happened, have a good idea ready to implement that will fix the mistake. Sometimes it’s best to begin implementing the plan before telling your supervisor what happened, other times you’ll need their permission to begin the damage control. That’s why step one is so important. Take the time to understand the cause and effect of the mistake and build your plan accordingly.

4. Follow through. The mistake is still a mistake until steps are taken to mitigate the issue. It can be hard to face the consequences of your actions, which is why this step can be the hardest part.

5. Follow-up. Once you’ve followed through on making sure the proper corrective steps were taken, make sure to follow-up on how the issue netted out. This shows responsibility and most importantly, that you care.

6. Reflect. Now that you’ve done all you can to fix whatever problems the mistake caused, think about how the mistake happened in the first place. Were you rushed for time? Have you been working too much? What about your sleep schedule? Are you feeling excited about the work you’re doing? All of these questions are important to ask yourself a couple times a year, and it’s helpful to do this when you’ve made a mistake AND when you’ve had a win.

In my experience, mistakes I’ve made have taught me exponentially more than my successes– like 10x more. As you grow into your career, get to know what drives your ego and what drives your passions. They’re two different things, and identifying the difference can help you avoid conflicts that may damage relationships with your coworkers and superiors.

Have any advice or stories about making mistakes? We’d love to hear them!

Illustration: Wit & Delight

BY Kate Arends - March 13, 2017

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Thank you for the tips. If there’s one good thing that can come out of our mistakes, it’s that we can learn from them!

Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

March 13, 2017 2:51 pm

I wish I had read this a few weeks ago, it would have ben such a big help. But I’m glad I have it now, and will remember it the next time something goes wrong

– Natalie

April 2, 2017 4:23 am

[…] post they have put up recently, I have really (and I mean really) appreciated. Here’s one on how to cope when you’ve messed up at work (boy, have I been […]

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