How to Recover from a Mistake at Work

When you make an error at work — from issuing an invoice with the wrong price to mistakenly forwarding an inappropriate email to a client — the blow to your professional credibility and self-esteem can be really difficult to shake. And while you may be tempted to slide under your desk and hide or, better yet, get back in your car and drive home, sadly the show really must go on and you are expected to carry on with the rest of the day. So, how do you move onwards and upwards when you’ve messed up at work?

While you can’t anticipate what kind of workplace setback will befall you next, having a recovery strategy in place can help reduce the negative fallout and get you back on track quickly. Here are four simple tips for recovering from a mistake at work.

Acknowledge that sinking feeling, but don’t let it drown you

There are plenty of emotions that take hold when faced with an error you’ve made at work. Embarrassment, panic, disappointment, and frustration are all natural responses in these stressful situations. It’s important to remember that these are normal responses, but try not to beat yourself up too much.

We’ve all tried to comfort ourselves by saying: It’s okay — everyone makes mistakes. But in reality, we probably believe something more like: Everyone else makes mistakes, but I can’t afford to!

The expectation seems to be that we should perform flawlessly at all times. This makes it so much harder to shake off those negative emotions that immobilize us from recovering quickly so that we can come up with solutions. Instead, try saying to yourself, I made a mistake, but it’s going to be okay. This way you are acknowledging what happened, but you’re in control of fixing it. A few deep breaths also help.

Offer a simple, genuine apology

More often than not, the first thing out of our mouth is an excuse or reason why the mistake happened. Resist the urge to issue a lengthy breakdown of the events that led up to the error. There may be a more appropriate time to debrief the situation later on, but a simple, professional apology is the best way to move the situation forward from a crisis to recovery.

Apologizing tells the other people involved that you accept responsibility and helps diffuse some of the negative emotions that they may be feeling as a result of the issue at hand. And resist any temptation to overdo it with the apologizing, or demean or belittle yourself in the wake of your mistake.

What is meant to elicit feelings of sympathy or compassion from others may actually backfire. A simple apology and a commitment to corrective action will instill far greater confidence in your abilities.

Plot all possible outcomes on a spectrum: worst case to best case

Your emotions are in check and you’ve apologized — now it’s time to fix your mistake. Where do you start?

First, take stock of the implications or consequences of your error from the best-case scenario to the worst. Take, for example, the invoice with the wrong price. Let’s say you quoted them a much lower price by mistake — at a significant loss to your company.

If you approach the customer and correct the invoice amount, the best-case scenario is that they accept the updated price. Maybe the worst-case scenario is that they cancel their purchase. Perhaps a potential solution is to acknowledge the error and suggest an adjusted price with a more reasonable discount as gesture of goodwill for the inconvenience caused by the error.

Maybe your mistake requires fixing by someone higher up the chain of command and maybe a formal reprimand is impending. While these outcomes are definitely higher on the worst-case end of the spectrum, the sooner you confront your own personal worst-case scenario, the sooner you can make peace with it and move on.

Lean into the learning curve

It might sound just as trite as everyone makes mistakes, but we truly do learn some of the best lessons from our mistakes. Take the opportunity to evaluate internal processes and implement safeguards if you can.

Also take time to check in with yourself personally. What did this mistake tell you about your own performance? Are you feeling overwhelmed at work? Having trouble staying focused? Are there tools that would help you do your job better? Once the situation has been resolved, it may be prudent to have a formal debrief with your boss. This could be a chance for you to demonstrate to management that you have made changes going forward, and it shows that you’ve turned a bad situation into an opportunity for growth.

So, the next time you make a mistake (and, yes, there will be a next time), remember these tips, take a deep breath, and know with confidence that it will be okay.

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