How to Deal with Making a Mistake at Work

Perfectionists and humans do this: anyone who isn’t a robot will at some point make a mistake at work. Mistakes are unavoidable. It’s how you deal with your mistake that matters. 

Mistakes happen, even if you are detail-oriented and careful. You may have called a client the wrong name or damaged your company’s reputation. After a mistake has been made, no matter how big or small, follow these steps to keep your job (or help you to find a new one).

Step 1: Acknowledge the Mistake

Whether you make a typing error that resulted in an important package being sent to the wrong planet or printed a thousand copies of the wrong file, the first step is to acknowledge the mistake. 

Everyone makes a mistake at some point in their career, and the best thing about making one is the confirmation that you are human. All humans are prone to errors. You say, “Oops” (or swear, depending on your preference), and start the recovery process.

Decide who to notify about the error, whether it is your boss, coworker, or customer, and tell them what has happened. The next critical part is damage control. 

Who does the mistake affect? Just yourself and one other person, or an assembly line of people? What must you say to each person? Is it enough to tell them about the error, or is there something you must do to put things back on track for each person?

Step 2: Analyze the Problem and Your Performance

After deciding who must be notified about the mistake, tell them what you will do to rectify the error. Will you need to issue an apology to a customer? Do you need to fulfill a product order a second time? 

How soon can you fix the mistake? Provide a timeline for each step and when you’ll have the issue resolved.

Those are the immediate steps that you need to take as soon as you realize that you’ve made an error.

You may also need to do some damage control to patch up relationships. For example, you forgot to complete your part of a project, so your coworker is angry with you. You could offer to help that coworker with their project.

Step 3: Process Your Feelings

You may be feeling frustration, embarrassment, or fear about what you’ve done. People may think you’re stupid or incompetent, and that’s a horrible feeling. 

When you realize you’ve made a mistake, you may be frustrated if the problem can’t be fixed right away, and other people need to be brought in to fix your issue. (And then even more people know what you did wrong. You’re getting famous – for the wrong reasons.)

It is embarrassing when other people are made aware of what you’ve done wrong. If only we could make things disappear with the snap of our fingers! 

In extreme cases, you may be fearful of losing your job because you’ve previously been warned not to make the same mistake, or the error is a costly one, resulting in the company losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

First, process your feelings. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and what is causing you to feel that way. 

Second, practice self-care. Do activities that will take your mind off what you’ve done wrong and regain your confidence. Watch a movie, spend time with friends, go for a run, or any number of activities that you enjoy.

Constantly dwelling on your negative feelings won’t improve the situation.

Step 4: Formulate a Plan to Prevent Future Mistakes

Analyze what went wrong and figure out how you can prevent the mistake from happening again. Could you create a checklist to follow? For example, if you made an error with a customer order, your checklist could include confirming the address and rechecking the customer’s name.

Ask for constructive feedback. What do your supervisor/coworkers/customers think you could do better? Is there any advice that you can take from the incident to improve how you do things in the future?

Taking initiative will show people that you’re trying your best to fix the mistake and prevent it from happening again.

Step 5: Focus on the Future: Mistakes Aren’t the End

If you are making the same type of mistake over and over again, analyze how you can improve yourself. Is there a skill you can work on? For example, if you are careless, how can you train yourself to be more precise? If you are disorganized, how can you be more organized with your schedule so you aren’t rushing to complete tasks close to the deadline?

In addition to improving soft skills, such as organization, what hard skills can you improve on to prevent mistakes? For example, if your error was the result of a lack of familiarity with a computer program or platform, can you take a course to improve your knowledge?

If your mistake was severe enough that you lost your job, you can still take steps to move on. How will you address the question (if it comes up) about why you left your last job? Instead of saying you were fired, you can simply say the job ended. Tell your next employer what you learned from the experience and the steps you’re taking to ensure a similar issue doesn’t happen again.

Always focus on self improvement. 

Key Takeaways

As the saying goes, mistakes happen. As soon as you realize that you made a mistake, take the initiative to acknowledge the error and find a solution. Mistakes are embarrassing, so take the time to process your emotions, take time for self care, and formulate a plan to prevent similar errors from happening again.

Do what you can to avoid making errors. Mistakes are unavoidable; it’s how you deal with them that matters.

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