What to do when you make a mistake at work

Admitting to the error, and clearly communicating your plan to rectify it, is your best course of action
by Fred Heritage 


Everyone makes mistakes but, of course, they can vary drastically in scale and level of seriousness. Some may be corrected with a quick conversation or simple apology, while others may be more significant and harder to undo.

At work, making a mistake could mean anything from attaching the wrong document to an email to losing your firm’s most important client. Here are some tips for what to do in the awkward period after you make a mistake at work.

Take a moment to feel bad

In an article for The Muse, psychologist and life coach Dr Suzanne Gelb says that “it’s natural to feel frustrated, embarrassed, or even distressed”, and she advises to allow yourself to feel bad about the mistake for about “10 to 15 seconds”.

The negativity should pass after that but, depending on the seriousness of the mistake, it may linger. Gelb says that when emotions get “stuck”, it’s important to release the pressure “in a healthy manner and as soon as possible”. She suggests jogging, kickboxing, writing or talking about the mistake.

Admit the mistake

In an article for The Balance Careers, career planning specialist Dawn Rosenberg McKay says that it’s important not to hide from a mistake made at work. She writes that unless it’s an insignificant error that won’t impact on anyone, then “as soon as you discover that something went awry, immediately tell your boss”.

Hiding your mistake could end up making you look worse, she says, and your colleagues could accuse you of trying to cover up issues. “Being upfront about it will demonstrate professionalism, a trait most employers greatly value,” she adds.

Plan to correct the error

Come up with a plan to fix the mistake and present the plan to your boss or leadership team.

When communicating your plan to correct the mistake, McKay says to be clear to your superiors about how long it may take, and how much it could cost, adding that it could also be sensible to “have a ‘Plan B’ in case your boss shoots down ‘Plan A’”.  She writes: “While making a mistake is never a good thing, don't miss the opportunity to demonstrate your problem-solving skills.”

Demonstrate your progression

Going above and beyond to show that you’re making amends can be the best way to recover from a mistake at work, writes executive coach Dina Smith in an article for the Harvard Business Review. Smith writes that because “people remember your faults more than your strengths,” it becomes “essential to take action and not shrink back after making a mistake”.

“Find ways to position yourself in front of people and demonstrate progress on the issue to rebuild trust and shift perceptions,” she adds.   

Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email fred.heritage@wardour.co.uk.
Published: 18 Aug 2022
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • Soft Skills
  • mistakes

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