How to fix things when you’ve made a mistake at work

frustraed man

We've all put a foot wrong at work. But what positive steps can you take to get back on track after making a mistake? We're here to help...

Whether it’s missing a deadline or mistakenly hitting ‘reply all’ on a private – and compromising – email, workplace mistakes are that common, they’re practically a rite of passage for anyone in gainful employment. But as frequent as they may be, these credibility-shattering instances can certainly put a dent in our professionalism, so it’s important to know how to handle your mistake in order to rectify things going forward.

Although we’re only human and all make mistakes, our response to errors can be a true show of our resolve and acumen. Here, we’ll offer some tips on how to deal with what can be a difficult issue, helping you to bounce back and get things on the right track after a workplace stumble.

Let yourself feel bad about it

In the immediate aftermath of your mistake, you’ll probably be feeling embarrassed, ashamed or even worried, and that’s perfectly fine; feeling like this is only natural. These feelings may pass quickly, but if not, it’s important not to let them get on top of you.

However, if these feelings and the negative thoughts haven’t dissipated as quickly as you’d hoped, then try letting off some steam in a positive way. Go for a jog, head to your next exercise class, or talk to a friend or therapist about the situation. These kinds of outlets can help to give you perspective in the process.

upset businessman

Take responsibility for the error

One of the most important ways of fixing things after making a mistake at work is to 100% own your error. Part of this is resisting the temptation to deflect the mistake, or blame the infraction on another member of the team. Any attempt to throw others under the bus will only end up making things worse if it transpires that you were being dishonest about others’ involvement.

Accept responsibility for the error and be honest when approaching affected parties. It’ll demonstrate your professionalism, which is a greatly valued attribute in the workplace.

Ask yourself “why did it happen?”

As you begin the damage control of dealing with your mistake, it’s a good idea to ask how you found yourself in the current situation. Sometimes mistakes happen in a brief moment where you weren’t paying attention, however, they may also be caused by a pattern of thinking that has been building for some time.

Ask yourself the following so that you can determine your next steps in dealing with an error, and prevent it from happening in the future:

• Did I make this mistake because I’ve stopped caring about the job?

• Did I make this mistake because the job is overwhelming me?

• Did I make this mistake because I lack the right skill set or need to know more about how things work?

worried businesswoman

Apologise – if you need to

Providing you need to, apologise to the relevant parties quickly and briefly. Often this is as simple as saying “I apologise for the mistake I made, I’m working on correcting the error ASAP”. When apologising in these situations, people feel the need to overdo it with excuses and justifications, or by going overboard in their choice of language. Instead, you should simply acknowledge the mistake and move on.

In reality, it’s often the case that other people have so much on their plate anyway, they’ve probably forgotten all about the issue itself – so a simple apology should suffice.

Start building up the small wins again

Right now, you might feel like all eyes are on you, waiting for you to make the same mistake again. Whether this is true or not, it’s a good idea to build up your goodwill, in addition to avoiding making other errors.

Demonstrate your worth by going the extra mile, whether that means showing up to work early, staying late, or putting in the extra hours to show you’re ready to move on. Not only does this instil confidence in others, it gives your own confidence a boost after it’s taken a bit of a knock. It can be these little victories that help get you back on the right track after making a mistake.

It is also advisable to be open and honest about the mistake, clarify why it won’t happen again and instil confidence that you’re a better employee on the back of the error. Furthermore, sharing the experience ensures others can avoid the mistake, too.

colleagues discussing work

Present some potential fixes

As well as taking responsibility for the problem, it’s good to do the same with the solution. Instead of telling your boss that you’ve made a mistake and then doing nothing to change your behaviour, illustrate your commitment to fixing the issue by suggesting a few solutions.

Perhaps you’re in a client-facing role and a customer hasn’t been happy with the way you’ve managed their account. Although this may not be pleasant to hear, it might make you realise you’ve been inattentive with them of late.

Upon telling your boss about the situation and taking responsibility for the mistake, start outlining your response to the client’s issue. This may be setting up more regular weekly meetings or bi-weekly phone calls.

Whatever it is, the most important thing is that you’re creating options and suggesting them to your manager, instead of simply leaving things at an apology. By being pro-active about your next steps, it shows that you’re dealing with fixing the error in the appropriate way. And when things like this happen, it shifts the focus of the conversation off the mistake and on to a more positive approach.

man listening to his manager

Take on others’ feedback

Depending on the seriousness of the mistake, there’s a chance you might be on the receiving end of some things that are difficult to hear. Whether it’s your colleagues or your boss, people may feel slighted and let you know about it as a result. Of course, hearing these kinds of things is never easy, so it’s important you handle your response with maturity and professionalism.

You should focus on listening to their concerns, and resist the urge to defend yourself. Instead, take on their feedback and use the mistake as a way of growing as a result. It might not make much sense at the time to not stand your ground, but it can be hugely rewarding to hear others out and build on what they have to say.

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