How to Handle Making a Mistake at Work

Updated Mar 28, 20224 min

How to Handle Making a Mistake at Work

Caroline BantonUpdated Mar 28, 20224 min

Did you make a mistake at work? It can be highly embarrassing, and sometimes damaging, but it shouldn't be something to agonize over. Are you making repeated mistakes? Well, that’s a red flag, and it may be time to come up with a game plan—you might be burned out or disengaging from your job.

This article will look at how to keep calm in the wake of a serious mistake, what you should do when you’ve made one, who to tell, and how to fix it. We also offer tips on ways to avoid similar calamities in the future.

Taking Stock

Mistakes in the workplace can range from a small blunder to a monumental catastrophe that has your team members talking for weeks. But everyone makes mistakes, so don’t panic just yet. Before you reach for the whiskey, the first thing to do is take stock of the mistake and figure out what the fall-out might be. The next step is damage control. Lastly, you need to figure out why you made the mistake in the first place and whether you need to take stock and make changes to your work or personal life.

Damage Control

So, what’s the extent of your faux-pas? Was it a typo? Then, relax. Did you send an email in error? Send a follow-up email to the relevant parties to inform them of your mistake, or make a few phone calls if necessary.

Did the email include sensitive information that is now in the wrong hands? That’s a more serious issue and a major mistake with ramifications. Before you do anything, inform your manager and seek their advice as to how to proceed so that you don’t compound your error. Your manager has knowledge that you don't and is the best person to judge what needs to happen.

Here's a step-by-step plan to follow after a big mistake.

Step 1. Take a deep breath. 

Before embarking on damage control for work mistakes, take a moment to pause. If you rush to fix a problem, you can make subsequent errors that make the situation even worse. Consider talking to a trusted confidante to get a better handle on the seriousness of the situation.  

Step 2. Own your mistake. 

Once you have overcome your initial shock, it’s time to assess exactly how bad the situation is and have a conversation with your manager about your mistake if necessary. Explain to your supervisor what happened and why it happened. Be honest. We are all human, and we have all made mistakes. 

Most importantly, before you sit down with your boss, do some problem-solving and develop an action plan to remedy what has occurred.

Step 3. Fix the Problem 

Prepare no more than three solutions to present to your manager as ways to remedy your slip-up. Your boss is likely to pick one of them, and that could redeem you because you have solved the problem for both of you.

Your manager might be angry, so prepare yourself. Worst-case scenario, you get fired. If that is the case, you are better off not working for an organization that has zero tolerance for the human condition.

A Mistake is the Best Way to Learn

If this is your first job, know that mistakes are an inevitable part of learning. The first time you send an email by mistake, or otherwise mess up, you should own it and learn from the experience. Once you have made an egregious mistake, you will likely never make it again! That said, if you notice that you are making mistakes often, or there is a pattern to them, there could be something more going on.

Why Did You Make the Mistake?

It’s crucial that you ask yourself why you made the mistake so that you can take steps to resolve the problem. Were you careless? If so, learn to take the time to check what you are doing and be responsible. Were you rushing? If so, learn to slow down and focus on details. What is your state of mind? Are you exhausted, stressed, or otherwise preoccupied?

If you are exhausted and burned out, it will be difficult not to make mistakes. Take this as an opportunity to step back and radically change your approach to work. You should have a frank discussion with your manager to resolve what is causing your current state of mind. You might need to consider your work-life balance and a reduced workload.

To find ways to better manage work and your personal life, read, "Work-Life Integration: Gaining Control of Your Life

If you are disinterested and losing interest in your work. Again, take a step back and assess what you need to do to find some motivation. 

If you are dissatisfied in your current position, change things before your mistakes intensify and are reflected in your performance review. Do you need to start a new job search? It’s better to decide to leave a job on a high note than to leave after a bout of poor performance reviews or even to be fired.

Consider talking to your manager, a career coach, HR, or a life coach. You might benefit from some career advice. 

To learn more about preparing for performance reviews, read, "How to Prepare for a Performance Review"

What If You Mess Up a Second Time?

What should you do if you mess up twice in short succession? It might be a temporary glitch, but you need to find the cause.

Consider all aspects of your life and whether they could be affecting your performance at work or your mental health. Have you changed your routine? Are you getting up early to work out and experiencing fatigue? Have you been burning your candle at both ends and enjoying too much social time? Are you taking classes in the evening that are adding to your stress load?

Try to pinpoint any contributing factors and devise a plan to make absolutely sure no more mishaps occur. Consider this a wake-up call.

Tips For Avoiding Future Calamities

One way to error-proof your ways is to create a checklist that you can refer to before you send an email or do a task. You can develop a checklist for every client or every project depending on how your work is organized.  No matter how confident you are, refer to the checklist and double-check your work before you finalize a task. You might be surprised by what you have overlooked.

To avoid sending emails in error, draft crucial or sensitive emails in another software before pasting them in an email. Don't add the recipient’s email address until you are sure it is ready to send and you have the appropriate person to send it to. That will avoid it being sent prematurely or to the wrong person if you accidentally click send.

The Good News

Mistakes can be something to be celebrated. At the end of the day, they lead to progress not the end of the world. Your early stumble may have prevented a greater catastrophe because you learned from your missteps. A mistake also gives you pause to reflect on your broader context and the dynamics driving your actions. They allow you to course correct. 

In an article for The Guardian, author Elizabeth Day wrote, “I realized that the biggest, most transformative moments of my life came through crisis or failure.” So, look at the bigger picture. Even the worst-case scenario, where a mistake costs you your job, could be the door to a more rewarding and lucrative vocation.

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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