10 Steps to Take When You’ve Made a Mistake at Work

Turn a “woops” into a “woohoo”.

If there’s one thing that history books can teach us, it’s that mistakes have existed for as long as human beings have. Take the mighty Trojans, for example, who accepted the wooden horse as a gift of peace, granting the Greek soldiers inside it an entrance into Troy. Or the Vikings, who gave Greenland and Iceland their names, when it’s painfully obvious that the first is covered in ice and the second in vegetation. And who could forget the Tuscans, who built the Tower of Pisa on a foundation of sand and clay, expecting it to stand upright?

While some miscalculations have gained enough notoriety to go down in history, the world has kept on turning despite their occurrence. What exactly are we trying to get at here? Well, the thing that’s brought you to this article (you know, the thing you did at work this morning) is both perfectly human and not as catastrophic as you may be telling yourself right now.

Below, we’ll look at some of the things you can do to feel better and become a more skilled problem solver, minimizing the chances of repeating similar mistakes in the future.

Step 1: Don’t panic

Errors can range in severity and, therefore, so can their consequences. Whatever it is that you did — snapping at your supervisor, missing a deadline, or sending a confidential email to the wrong person — can seem like the end of the world at first.

However, reacting impulsively to the situation can make matters worse. Instead, it’s important to maintain your composure as best as you can and let the “storm clouds” begin to dissipate before taking action.

Step 2: Acknowledge the mistake

The initial shock that succeeds an error can be paralyzing. With your adrenaline levels spiking, it’s likely that all you’ll want to do at first is run for the door and never look back.

When those first feelings lose their intensity, though, it’s important to approach the situation logically. Real life has no “undo” button, so it’s best to admit that the mistake has happened. The faster you do this, the sooner you’ll be able to arrive at an appropriate response or solution to the problem.

Step 3: Respond to the situation

As Remone Robinson, chief people officer at Revolution Consulting, puts it:

“Often, mistakes can be remedied if addressed quickly. By communicating quickly, you’re able to devise a solution.”

It’s true: the quicker you can push aside your feelings of shame and act, the better your chances of rectifying what went wrong. Whether it’s sending a follow-up email or getting someone on the phone, thinking fast on your feet can prevent a cascade of undesirable events.

Step 4: Process your feelings

Mistakes can send us in a downward spiral of self-loathing and self-pitying, which gets in the way of the problem-solving process. Not only that, but having the tendency to suppress emotions can have a detrimental effect on both our mental and physical health.

Once you finally reach home at the end of the day, sit with any uncomfortable emotions you’re experiencing. Reflecting on what happened in your own time will help you feel better — just take care to be gentle with yourself.

Step 5: Identify what went wrong

Coming up with a solution begins with identifying the problem. Think back to what it was that caused you to blunder; was it absent-mindedness, a short temper, or an overestimation of your abilities?

Once you’ve defined the problem, you’ll be able to reduce the likelihood of repeating the same mistake. Perhaps moving forward, you’ll need to periodically make use of your vacation days so that stress and fatigue don’t pile up. Or, after an honest chat with yourself, you may realize that your job isn’t the right match for your skillset or personality.

Step 6: Apologize if you need to

Pat Fligge, director of Temple Professional Network, Temple University, explains that not every mistake has the same impact. He says:

“When a surgeon says ‘oops’, the implications are quite different than a career coach saying ‘oops’. But, differing stakes aside, the first step is to apologize to those affected by the mistake. Not only is it just polite and what folks are expecting, but it can also show you recognize the impact of the mistake.”

Indeed, though apologizing can be difficult, the ability to sincerely say “sorry” can help you repair any relationships that your wrongdoing may have harmed. If the mistake you’ve made was more serious, it’s best to apologize to your boss in person or set up a call with your client as soon as possible.

Step 7: Forgive yourself

At the end of the day, good problem-solving techniques will mean little if you treat yourself unkindly. You won’t be able to move on or give yourself credit for finding a solution if all you keep thinking is “how on Earth did I manage that?!”

Riley Beam, managing attorney at Douglas R. Beam, P.A., says:

“Mistakes are an unavoidable part of a process. After all, it’s only a commitment to an actionable workflow that leads to results, and one cannot afford to restrict actions only due to fear or errors.”

It’s true: forgiving yourself is the only way to let go of the disappointment and gain back your confidence and productivity at work.

Step 8: Learn from your mistake

When mistakes happen, it’s important that we take something away from the experience. However, we won’t be able to learn from our errors unless we put our wounded ego aside. This can mean admitting our weaknesses, asking for help from a colleague, and keeping a growth mindset despite the discomfort — which are all excellent soft skills to have, by the way.

In the words of Irma Parone, ODCP, president of Parone Group, LLC:

“Get in front of your mistake quickly, and with passion. Fall on the sword, as the saying goes. Admit it, fix it, and assure your company that the lesson learned was valuable because it taught you XYZ.”

Step 9: Gain back trust

If your error has put other team members or your boss in an unfavorable position, you should start with a heartfelt apology. Then, once you’ve identified what went wrong and what you can do better, you should communicate this to them, too.

However, gaining back trust goes beyond words; your actions need to reflect your intentions, too. It’s now more important than ever that you focus on improving your office etiquette: no more gossiping, scrolling on your phone, ignoring standardized procedures, or anything that can threaten your credibility.

Step 10: Remember you are not alone

Feeling embarrassed, guilty, and disappointed is valid, even if the mistake you made is relatively small. No matter what it is that went wrong, it’s good to remember that many, many people have faced similar problems before and survived to tell the tale. Except for the Trojans, maybe, but we doubt that what you did at work is equivalent to the fall of Troy, regardless of what you believe.

Final thoughts

Though it’s impossible to prevent mistakes from happening entirely, it’s in your hand to develop some effective problem-solving skills to cope better when they occur. It doesn’t have to be complicated — in fact, you can start working on this right now!

Take the “five whys” method, for example, which is a kind of root cause analysis that helps computer scientists and engineers get to the bottom of complex problems. All you have to do is start with a statement, such as “I messed up during an important presentation” — then ask yourself why. Perhaps the answer is: “I was nervous” — to which you must ask another why. “I was not adequately prepared”, you might realize. Keep asking yourself why until you get to the bottom of the problem, so you know exactly what to do differently next time.

Developing problem-solving strategies is the best way you can offer yourself a sense of control and some much-needed peace of mind.

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