6 Ways to Bounce Back After a Work Mistake


You messed up at work. We've all been there. Whether it was a small error or a huge mistake, the foremost thought in your mind is, "What can I do to fix this?"

If it was a genuine mistake, you should be able to make it right. It will take some work, a little pride-swallowing, and time to help the wounds heal. But you can do it. Here's how.

1. Acknowledge your mistake

This is no time to play the blame game. You also cannot run and hide from the truth, or sweep your mistake under the rug and hope it won't get noticed. It will. If you wait until your mistake is discovered, it will be much harder to recover.

Take, for example, the true story of John (not his real name), an account manager in a London advertising agency. After a horrendous call with the client, he slammed down the phone and started berating her to the entire department. How she was clueless, a result of nepotism, didn't know the product, and various other barbs. The thing is, John had slammed the phone but had not actually hung up. She heard everything.

He had two options at this point; say nothing and lie about it to his boss if she reported the incident; or, go straight to the boss and admit the huge screw up. John did the latter. He was rightly screamed at; this was an important client. But, by telling the boss immediately, he gave him the chance to be proactive with the client, calling her immediately to explain that John had been under intense pressure, was taking a leave of absence to recuperate, and would not be on her account again. It worked. John kept his job and the agency kept the client. (See also: 8 Career Moves That Prove You're Finally a Grown-Up)

2. Make a sincere apology

After fessing up to the mistake, the next step is to apologize to the right people for the error. Depending on the kind of company where you work and the management structure, you may be about to eat some hefty slices of humble pie.

Your direct supervisor is the first on the list, and if you followed step one, the apology is a natural next step. Your supervisor will probably tell you just who to talk to next to make amends. If a customer was affected, you may have to reach out to them by phone or email and make a genuine apology. If other people at work were affected by your actions, they deserve an apology, too; especially if they had to work overtime to fix things, or their own job performance was impacted by what you did.

Apologizing is certainly not easy; we all learned that in childhood. However, it's the adult thing to do, and can go a long way to making things right. But it must be completely sincere. Should any sarcasm creep in, or you look like you're making the statement at gunpoint, it can make matters worse.

3. Realize that very few excuses will do

Most of the time, a work mistake is just that. You messed up. You didn't check the right box, didn't see a glaring error, or did something that hurt the success of the company. Once you have admitted the mistake and apologized for it, don't be tempted to follow that with, "However, in my defense …" and an excuse.

For example, you may have been working more hours than usual, but so have a lot of other people. Are they making mistakes, too? Maybe your new puppy is howling all night and you're not getting any sleep. Is this the company's issue? You may well be going through a tough time with your partner. Again, is your relationship the concern of the people paying your wages?

The only good excuse is one that is impossible to fault you for: a sudden bereavement in the family; a major illness; an act of God. Other than that, keep the excuses for the schoolkids.

4. Do whatever you can to fix the mistake

You've admitted the mistake, you've apologized, and you haven't used an excuse. Now you have to clean up the mess you made. Hopefully, it's a small problem that can be resolved quickly and easily without the need for other members of staff to come to your aid. But if it's a bigger problem and you need help, don't be afraid to ask for it.

Most people that you work with will understand the situation you're in, and if they were faced with the same issue, they'd want help from their co-workers, too. If it is going to require a lot of time and effort from these people, find a way to make it up to them. It could be as simple as bringing in breakfast one morning, or offering them any kind of favor in return.

If the mistake became something newsworthy, address that as well. Talk to your boss about extending an interview to the newspapers and media outlets, explaining the mistake you made and absolving the company of any blame. It may require you to suck it up and look a little foolish for a while, but today's headlines are tomorrow's recycling. Whatever the mistake was, you need to make sure that the whole situation is resolved to the company's satisfaction, and that everyone is ready to move on.

5. Work diligently to ensure it never happens again

After the mistake has been rectified, the next step you must take is to identify why it happened, and take action to ensure it never happens again. Did you delegate a task to someone who was not ready for that kind of position or responsibility? Did you skip a step in the process that seemed pointless, but that proved to be essential? Was it an accident that could have been prevented if different safety measures had been implemented? Whatever the cause, it needs to be found, understood, and eliminated.

You must also make sure the right people know about the changes you are making to stop the mistake from happening again. Run your plans by your superiors, and show them that you are being proactive in preventing this issue from ever arising again. They will appreciate your diligence, and it may also make them look at other possible issues within the company. In short, once you've got the horse back in the stable, you need to bolt that sucker tight.

6. Do not let one mistake change who you are

The dust has settled. Everything is back to normal. You're ready to get back to the daily routine … or are you? A significant mistake can have a lasting negative impact on your emotions, and you may have to work hard to overcome it.

Remember: It was a mistake. It wasn't an act of malice, or something you did on purpose. Mistakes happen. If you are now terrified of making that mistake twice, you could become a much less effective employee. Do not let this one hiccup, even if it was a big one, get in the way of what you're capable of.

Get back in the game and learn from that mistake without letting it bring you down. Even if it takes a visit or two to an occupational therapist, it's worth it.

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