What To Do After Making A Mistake At Work
Once The Panic Subsides, Of Course
As inherently human as mistakes are, the feelings that can come with making them never get any easier to experience. There’s guilt and regret, embarrassment and shame, icky awkwardness. There are the errors we make because we don’t know any better or because of an oversight, because of a distraction or because of a poor choice we’re only able to admit in retrospect. There are the ones we make in our personal lives, in private, and hopefully at the expense of no one. And then there are the ones we make at work where more than just our own egos are impacted.
I’ve done it. I made an agreement with a client and then forgot, thus leaving my part of the promise unfulfilled. Over a month later, to my surprise and theirs, the error was discovered and it was only after a thorough backtracking through my emails that I remembered where I’d gone wrong. This was (obviously) then followed by 15 minutes of silent panic and pondered damage control.
When we’re mistake-making children, we’re granted a bit of leeway. We can make excuses for our still-developing attention spans. But adulthood breeds accountability. And in places of work, out of respect for our team members, we can’t in good faith escape, deny, or lie.
Here are a few ways to take care of yourself (and your position) at work—and then at home—post-error.
There’s really no way around this first step, folks! According to Timothy Wiedman, a now-retired professor of management and human resources, and former Fortune 1000 general manager, “When you’re in the wrong, take responsibility. Immediately.” Thankfully, this was my approach, even if a tough one to execute.
After personifying the “yikes” emoji for awhile—you know the one: 😬—I sent my boss a Slack message punctuated with acknowledgments: “I overlooked that and failed to…” and “I take full responsibility and am so sorry.” Writing my admission felt uncomfortable but honest. It also felt like an invitation of sorts, like if I approached the grounds with humility, I’d at least warrant hospitality in return.
Still, looking back, I should’ve used less “It seems like…” language. Half-truths can cause delays in efficient amending because the more accurate details will inevitably reveal themselves in real-time and this can lead to several false starts in the resolution process. It can also waste both time and money—imperative values in any setting but especially in professional ones. The more candid the initial confession, the sooner a path toward a solution can be carved.
So be sure to inform all those affected. Workplaces are networks of co-dependent connections, so try not to topple the Jenga tower. More importantly, these networks are built on trust and reliability. A refusal or inability to take accountability will only make for a sullied reputation, toxic environment, and/or truncated tenure.
Whatever you do, don’t try to Homer Simpson your way out of it. “Don’t simply hope that a blunder went unnoticed,” says Wiedman. “If you noticed the error, you can bet that others did, too.”
(Try To) Take Part In The Solution
We’re not out of the woods just yet! After acknowledging our gaffe, it’s both advised and admirable to try and take part in its repair—not simply because it reinstates order but because when working in a team, character can be as important as competence.
Wiedman suggests that we volunteer to do whatever is necessary to make things right. “And be sincere about your offer,” he says. “At some point down the line, most parties involved will remember and respect that level of integrity.”
Holly Koenig, senior vice president of global association management & communications company Kellen, echoes that expectation: “What others, clients, and teams will remember is how you handled the mistake—especially if you handled it poorly.”
In my case, I directly asked my supervisor, “Is there any way we can rectify this?,” seeking guidance but just as readily making myself available to participate.
So if you’re in the position to do so, equip your admission with a readied alternative solution, an action plan complete with the amendments needed to correct the error. If you’re not in such a position, offer up your time to at least assist in remedying the circumstance.
Reflect (But Don’t Ruminate)
After my mistake came to light, I spent some time attempting to recall the day in question. I wondered how I felt emotionally and if I was preoccupied.
It’s a self-reflecting process that Ashley Edelstein, LMFT advises we engage in post-error. “Mistakes often provide interesting information about how you’re feeling in general,” Edelstein says. “Remove any self-judgments and reflect on what happened. Did you make a mistake because you’re tired, burnt out, or overworked? Is it a sign you need to take a break? Have you stopped caring about your job? Is it a sign that you may need to re-engage or consider whether the job is the right fit for you?”
Edelstein suggests we attempt to determine what the mistake is trying to tell us.
In my case, too much time had already passed for me to accurately remember. All that a deep-dive into my emails confirmed was, yes, a number of various details being discussed all at once. Aware of that, however, I should’ve begun jotting my responsibilities down then, pen to paper, rather than relying on my memory. It’s a lesson learned no matter how trite that may sound—though Koenig fully embraces it. “Errors are good because they will teach you a tough lesson,” she says. “Don’t beat yourself up. We all make mistakes—everyone!—and that’s how we learn not to make the same ones.”
However, more than just passively embracing our errors, Weidman believes we should actively counter them. Rather than sulking after a mishap, he suggests we promote an enthusiastic attitude. “Enthusiasm can be infectious and thus improve the overall atmosphere in any organization,” he says. “While you can’t undo the past, you can work toward creating a more pleasant and productive workplace environment.”
I naturally did this, too. In the ensuing interactions with the client, I was friendly and responsive. And rather than hiding, I was eager to remain their point-of-contact for the course-correct.
Be Kind To Yourself
While it may come naturally to us to want to wallow in self-pity or punishment, it no sooner gets us in good graces—at work or with ourselves. According to Edelstein, focusing on the anger or embarrassment of making a mistake often blocks us from learning.
To get started on healing instead, she suggests that we look at our error as if committed by a loved one—“We’re often much more harsh with ourselves than others”—and then write ourselves a self-compassionate note or email. Once finished, read it out loud.
“Notice if you’re beating yourself up, and try saying exactly what you would say to a friend if they made the same mistake,” says Edelstein. “This practice allows you to take accountability for messing up without getting caught up in a shame cycle.”
My recovery looked like pledging to be more careful and to double-back and review all upcoming items with a more precise eye. To myself, I vowed to continue to build a rapport and reputation with others that would affirm any other mistakes an exception to the rule.
No matter how much troubleshooting and self-studying we choose to do, confidently declaring that we’ll never make another mistake again is dangerous, presumptive territory. We’re real, not robots after all. What’s more likely instead, and even honorable, is a commitment to learning from our missteps and then intentionally avoiding the ones we’ve already treaded.
How have you recovered from making a mistake at work? Share your experience in the comments below!
Danielle Cheesman was born and raised in New Jersey, where she lived until moving to Philadelphia to study journalism at Temple University. She has spent her years writing and developing editorial visions for music, art, and lifestyle brands. Now residing in Los Angeles, you can usually find her taking pictures, making playlists, or cuddling her pup. Say hi on Instagram!