What to Do After Making a Mistake at Work: A 6-Step Plan
It happens to the best of us. We miss a deadline, misunderstand an assignment, or mess up a presentation. Sometimes our mistakes at work are small, we’re just 10 minutes late to a meeting, for example. Other times, we might lose a client, cost our company money, or damage someone’s reputation.
There’s nothing you can do to change what’s already happened, but you can control what you do next — and that can make all the difference. Here’s what you should do after making a mistake at work.
What to Do After Making a Mistake at Work?
Just messed something up at work? Here’s a step-by-step guide on what to do next.
1. Take a Few Deep Breaths
When you realize you’ve made a mistake, even a small one, it can be hard to trust your emotions. Your first reaction might be to lash out in anger at someone, apologize frantically for something that wasn’t your fault, or otherwise try to fix your mistake in a less-than-ideal way.
Before you do anything, take some deep breaths. This should calm you down, so you can react with a more rational headspace.
If possible, head to the bathroom, a private meeting room, or step outside to be alone with your thoughts for a few moments.
2. Take a Few Minutes to Think Things Through
Once you’ve taken a beat to calm down, it’s time to start thinking through your mistake.
We know it’s easier to stick your head in the sand and hope this whole thing will blow over. But trust us, you’re far better off facing your mistakes head-on.
You’ll gain more respect from your boss and coworkers if you take responsibility for your mistakes, apologize, fix them, and learn from them.
Before you rush into any of those steps, however. Take time to think things through.
Grab a notebook or open up your phone notes and ask yourself:
- Was this mistake really your fault, or are you tempted to apologize for something you don’t need to?
- If it was your fault, who do you need to apologize to?
- Does your apology need to be in person?
- Are there ways you can fix this mistake?
- How can you make sure this doesn’t happen again?
- What can you learn from this mistake to make you a better employee and person?
It can also be useful to talk to a trusted friend or colleague at this point to get a second opinion.
This step is crucial. We’re all human and mistakes happen, it’s often how you deal with them that makes all the difference. Getting your apology right is a key part of that.
We’ve written a whole guide on how to apologize for a mistake at work, but here are some pointers to get you started:
- Say the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”
- Admit what happened and what went wrong.
- Own up to your part in the mistake, and don’t try to shift the blame.
- Apologize as soon as you can after the mistake.
- Small mistakes may just need an email apology, but consider scheduling a face-to-face meeting for bigger, more serious mistakes.
Need an example apology to steal? We’ve got you:
Hi James, I wanted to apologize for my response to a customer on Twitter today. I was trying to get involved with a trend, but I see now how distasteful my post looks now. I’ve removed the Tweet and apologized to the customer. I’ll also be updating our social media guidelines to make sure these kinds of Tweets don’t go out ever again. I’m sorry again.
4. Fix Things (if You Can)
Some mistakes can be fixed. If yours is one of them, you can either get started on fixing it right away or brainstorm ideas with your boss and colleagues to get their thoughts on it first.
By focusing on finding a solution, you’re showing you’re a problem-solver, not someone who makes mistakes and lets other people pick up the slack for them.
You might stay late to write a report you had forgotten about, delete a Twitter reply you’d fired off from the company account, or reach out to a client and offer them an “I’m sorry” discount.
5. Learn from the Mistake and Grow
While mistakes happen, you don’t want to make them a regular occurrence in your work life. Reflect on what went wrong and how you can make sure it doesn’t happen again.
This could turn out to be a great growth opportunity after all. One survey found 84% of employees and small business owners see making mistakes as an opportunity for growth. People said they’d learned everything from how to be more productive to how to get a better understanding of their work tasks to learning how to prioritize, all from making mistakes.
For example, if you missed an important work deadline, can you switch from using scribbled post-it notes to software like Google Calendar or Trello to organize your workload?
If you quoted a client misleading sales figures, can you vow to double-check all numbers in your presentations the night before giving them, and run them by colleagues to make sure they’re correct?
You can also include how you’re learning from your mistake and making sure it won’t happen again in your apology, too.
6. Talk to Your Boss
Yes, the last thing you might feel like doing after making a mistake is admitting it directly to your boss. But it’s better they hear what’s happened from you, rather than from another team member or a client.
Schedule a meeting as soon as you can. Explain simply what happened, apologize for the mistake, and share how you can fix the problem (if applicable), and how you’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Then get back to work.
A good boss will understand that mistakes happen — they’ve most likely made a fair few mistakes themselves.
They may be able to walk you through the best fixes for the mistake and help you take the right steps to stop it from happening again.
How Do You Stop Yourself Feeling Guilty About Mistakes at Work?
Keep thinking about your mistake and replaying it over and over in your mind? Here’s how to stop feeling guilty about workplace blunders.
1. Feel Your Feelings
First up, let yourself feel annoyed. It’s difficult to find out you’ve made a mistake when you work hard, care about your career, and are generally a good worker.
Beating yourself up for feeling guilty about a mistake won’t help in any way. Give yourself some time to feel upset, annoyed, angry — whatever emotions are coming up.
Just don’t allow yourself to wallow there too long, or let those emotions impact your work going forward.
2. Put Things in Perspective
Feeling like you’re in a guilt spiral? Put things in perspective. Yes, you made a mistake, but everyone in your office has probably made a mistake in their jobs before. Some of them may have even made much bigger mistakes than you.
As long as you take the right steps — apologize, own up to it, learn and grow — most decent people will understand. And life will go on.
Need some more motivation? In the survey we mentioned earlier, 85% of small business owners and employees believed they wouldn’t be where they are today if they stopped trying after making a mistake at work. So keep going!
3. Practice Self-care
Self-care may be becoming a cliché, but it does work. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself, especially after making a mistake at work.
Your stress levels are probably higher than usual, so be sure to prioritize getting a good night’s sleep, eating nutritious meals, and getting outside for some exercise.
You may just find things aren’t as bad as they seem when you’re looking at them with a clearer head.
Plus, prioritize self-care at all times. You’re more likely to make mistakes at work when you’re underslept, eating poorly, and battling sky-high stress levels.
4. Get a Friend’s Advice
Many of us are harder on ourselves than we would be on other people. While you’re beating yourself up for a minor mistake, you might not even think twice about it if a colleague had made the same error.
To get out of this cycle, bring a trusted friend in to help. Explain the situation to them and ask them, honestly, how bad they think it is.
Most likely, their reaction will be softer than yours. It may help you get some perspective on the problem.
You can also speak to a trusted colleague who may have more context on the workplace problem or a therapist who can help you with strategies to overcome feelings of guilt.
What to Do if Your Employee or Direct Report Makes a Mistake at Work?
When someone else makes a mistake at work, remember to treat them with the same respect you’d like to be treated with.
While they may have cost you a client or made you look bad in front of other team members, they most likely didn’t do it on purpose, and they’re probably mortified, too.
Here’s what to do.
1. Schedule a One-to-One Meeting
If possible, meet in person with your employee or team member or jump on a video call if you’re in different locations.
Talking face-to-face may feel uncomfortable at first, but it’ll avoid any miscommunications that can happen over email and allow you to calmly talk through what happened.
2. Reassure Them
If they’re like most people, your team member is probably feeling awful right now. Reassure them that mistakes happen, life goes on, and focus on being solution-oriented, rather than dwelling on what happened.
While you may be mad, there’s nothing you can do about the past. Part of being a good boss is helping your team members grow in their roles, and making mistakes is a great growth opportunity. You can be there to guide them through it.
3. Help Them Come Up with Fixes
Notice how we didn’t say you should come up with all the solutions. While it’s easy to rush in and fix the situation yourself, this is part of being a great leader. Allow your team member to brainstorm ideas for how the mistake can be rectified.
If they come up with good ideas, great! They can either go ahead and execute them by themselves, or you can do so together — whatever’s most appropriate.
If their solutions don’t quite hit the mark, try coaching them through how you’d fix things, and help them see why this is the better way to do things.
If you yourself need to reach out to a client or talk to your team as a whole, lead by example and do so in a calm, positive way.
Also, consider ways you can make sure this type of mistake doesn’t happen again. That might include changing your own behavior — by communicating deadlines more clearly or lightening their workload, for example. See it as a team effort.
And there you have it, a plan for exactly what to do when you’ve made a mistake at work. Remember to take a moment to gather your thoughts, then apologize, learn from the mistake, and fix it if possible. When someone on your team or someone you manage makes a mistake, help them learn and grow from it, too.