What To Do After You Make A Mistake At Work (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 9, 2020
Articles In Life At Work Guide

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Articles In Life At Work Guide

You’ve made a mistake at work, and it feels like the worst thing in the world. You are afraid you just found a way to get fired, you feel incompetent, you’re anxious. You’ve got all sorts of bad feelings, yet it’s probably not as bad as you imagine.

First of all, those feelings are totally common, and having them is normal. It’s also normal and common to make a mistake. Everyone does it once in a while, and, in most situations, it’s not the end of your job, and it’s definitely not the end of the world.

That said, there are some things you should do to recover from making a mistake a work.

Before Enacting Code Red: Remedy Work Error Plan

Once you realize you’ve made a work error, your body hits that primal fight or flight emotional state. You can feel the adrenaline. You’re probably not going to put up your dukes and fight it out, and, most likely, you’re not going to turn and run. But you do have some instincts going on that might cause you to make the wrong move.

If it’s a crucial error and harm can come from not acting quickly, you obviously need to act quickly. For example, you didn’t turn off the equipment in an assembly line, and someone could get hurt. It’s critical that you run over and shut it down immediately.

But we’re talking more about other types of work errors here, like you missed a deadline or completely forgot to compile a report. Maybe you sent an email you shouldn’t have sent. Tagged the wrong graphic with a headline. Anything that doesn’t involve immediate injury or damage needs a second look and careful consideration.

Before you begin apologizing all over the place and calling attention to your error, it’s vital that you stop and take a step back. There’s no need to call attention to your mistakes if it’s not necessary. Do your best to fix it, tell the people who need to know about it, and move on.

On the other hand, don’t ignore the error and hope no one noticed or brush it aside like it’s unimportant. It’s human nature to protect your ego, but it’s better if you can step away and accept that a mistake was made. Then you won’t have that little bit of doubt and worry eating away at you. You also look better than if the error is discovered later and traced back to you.

It’s essential that you don’t impulsively go overboard or run away from a work error. Find your midpoint, and then move on to the seven steps below.

7 Steps to Take After You Make a Mistake at Work

No matter how big or small your gaff, you’re going to have to remedy the situation in some way. The following seven steps might help you fix your work error.

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  1. Accept your emotions and feelings and then move on. Okay, so you feel bad about your error. Whatever emotions it brings up, none of them are good. Treat these feelings like any other and manage them in a healthy way. The mistake happened, you’re going to react, all of that is okay. But then move on and stop dwelling.

  2. Assess the damages. So, what happened? Whether it’s a relatively minor or it’s an incredibly major mistake, you need to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Yes, this will prompt emotions, too. If it’s terrible, then you may feel the panic creep back. If it’s not that bad, you might be relieved.

    Once you know what has happened and what can happen, you can start curating a game plan for fixing the problem.

  3. Apologize and take responsibility. Effusive apologies aren’t necessary. But being honest about your role in the error and taking responsibility is. This is important because it shows you can be adult and professional, but there’s another, more important, reason.

    When you accept responsibility for something, you’re permitting yourself to fix it. As long as you are placing blame elsewhere, you don’t have the authority to make change. This applies to all areas of life, and it’s a critical lesson for adulthood, professionalism, and maturity. Even if something isn’t your fault, you can take steps to fix it once you accept responsibility.

  4. Don’t blame. Show your integrity in this situation, even if it is someone else’s fault, or at least partially so. Blame really doesn’t matter when it comes to fixing a mistake.

    You may find that later, down the line, the blame is an issue to your supervisor or the human resources department. At this point, you should still not blame but state your case and the facts. Also, point out that you did what you could to find a solution. This will only put you in a better light.

  5. Prevention and precaution. (Steps five and six work together.) How can you make sure that it never happens again? Are there steps you can take to prevent it from happening, or at least make it less likely to happen?

  6. Cause and effect. Part of your prevention and precaution step might highlight or pinpoint the cause of the mistake.

    If it did, hopefully, you noted it and maybe were already able to spot a way to prevent a future issue. Like, you’re overworked and overtired, so you realize that sleep needs to be a priority.

    If you didn’t spot the cause, it’s time to put your detective hat on and see if you can determine why you made the error. Once you do, you might need to go back up to step five and work a remedy into your plan.

  7. Recover. Easier said than done. In fact, this topic deserves its own section. So, we’ll cover that below.

How to Recover When You Make a Mistake at Work

Here’s the thing about making a mistake at work; your reputation can be affected. It’s not that people are going to think you’re suddenly a bad person. But some people might not believe you’re as reliable, trustworthy, or competent as they did before. If you’re working with someone new, this could be a bad first impression that’s hard to shake.

  • Accept it. Everyone makes mistakes. You not dwelling on your mistake can be the first step in others not dwelling on it. While you are accepting your error, it’s important that you accept mistakes by others, too. If you can’t forgive others for their mistakes, how are they going to forgive you?

  • Make the solution the focus. Leave the mistake behind but hold onto the solution. If someone brings up your mistake, direct them to the fact that you also had a solution. Change the narrative.

  • Take feedback. You made a mistake, you found a solution, but there’s a chance you could have done better. If someone offers feedback, listen to them, and carefully weigh it against your solution. It’s hard not to get defensive, but this could be one of those learning moments that can change you for the better.

  • Grow from the mistake. One of the best ways to salvage your reputation and improve upon it is to let it define you in a positive way. Display your determination not to make that mistake again and to show you’re even better than before. This will do a lot for your professional reputation.

  • Don’t do it again. Sure, this should go without saying, but too often, people don’t go beyond the immediate problem to discover what happened in the first place and how to prevent it. Repeated mistakes, especially the same mistake over and over, will definitely tarnish your work reputation.

  • Be positive. A negative attitude about the mistake, about what people think of you, or about having to fix the mistake will drag you down. Even if someone sees you as the person that made that colossal blunder, your positive approach to the future can begin to erase their misgivings.

While recovering from the mistake is one thing, rebuilding your reputation is another. The good news is, if you do it right, you might even come out looking better and like someone who can fix things.

On the Other Side of a Work Error

Making a mistake is not all bad. Some of the most significant learning moments come from screwing up. It’s through these bad times that you’re forced to try new things and grow.

This can be something you laugh about in the future. It can become a cautionary tale you share with others as you train them for the position. You can make the most of this mistake and use it to prove that you’re someone who overcomes and finds solutions. In fact, the ideas you have could help you and the company avoid similar mistakes in the future.

If you don’t survive this mistake at your job, you can make the most of it. You have the self-satisfaction of knowing that you did what you could to fix it. And imagine how you can twist this into a wonderful answer to the question, “Tell me about a time you failed” at your dream job interview.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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