We’ve heard the phrase "to err is to human." While we fundamentally understand that everyone makes mistakes, it's hard to process when it happens to us at work. People make mistakes due to stress, miscommunication, job mismatch and a plethora of other reasons. However, employers don’t particularly like excuses, so what should you say when you mess up at work? Employers like employees who take ownership of their mistakes, bring solutions and set up procedures so that the mistake doesn’t reoccur. Mistakes vary in severity, but generally, you can say something like, “I apologize, I made a mistake and I’m working on fixing this ASAP. This is why it happened/here’s what I learned from the situation and how I will ensure it won’t happen again next time.”
It’s important to reiterate that making mistakes is natural and that we can forgive ourselves. Staying stuck will only hurt our egos and not allow us to move on to other tasks. So, the most productive thing is to learn from the mistake and move on.
It’s important to own your mistake because it likely will affect your team. It might seem easier to deal with the issue yourself; however, you might not have the resources or scope to deal with the issue on your own. Prolonging the mistake will only take longer to fix it, and your boss may become upset that you didn’t come to her sooner. Toyoto’s Chairman Katsuaki Watanabe advocates getting problems out in the open, because “once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn't notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them.”
As you own up to your mistake, it’s natural to apologize for the error. However, you don’t want to go overboard on your apology, as it might make the issue bigger than it is. Also, if appropriate for your work environment, you can solve the problem while adding a bit of humor to ease the situation.
This is a key step if you made a mistake at work. Lisa Quast at Forbes says that “if you want to stand out as a valued employee, don’t bring problems to your manager — bring solutions. Why? Because there are too many problems for managers to solve all by themselves; that's why you were hired.” Come up with a variety of solutions for your mistake, and pick one you feel is the best solution while having backups if your manager asks.
One-off mistakes happen, but you don’t want them to turn into recurring mistakes. If you make the same mistakes again and again, you could lose the trust of your team, and it could show up in your annual review. Put safeguards in place to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again. For example, if you make the same writing mistakes, you can ask or create a style guide to have in front of you.
While rebuilding your boss’s trust depends on the gravity of the mistake, generally you want to get back in the good graces of your boss to move forward. This is especially true if you make the same errors, so you need to prove your capability. Start with low-stakes assignments, so you can prove your ability and build confidence. Showing initiative also proves that you will work hard when something goes wrong.
While it’s good to understand the why behind your mistake in order to correct it and explain to your team, sometimes there's a deeper element. After the storm, you have more space to reflect. If it was just a moment of spaciness, then that is one-off. However, if you are making careless mistakes you may consider that you don’t care about the job anymore, you don’t have the right skill set or are not taking care of yourself.
If you realize you’re not invested in your job anymore, you can start putting feelers out for new opportunities or consider what opportunities you think would fit you more. If you don’t think you have the right skills, you can request training or take online classes on your own. If you’ve been making errors because you were too drowsy, you can prioritize your health.
It’s very easy to berate ourselves for mistakes. However, you’re not the first to make a mistake, nor will you be the last. Failing, learning from mistakes and moving on is part of the process and every great leader has made mistakes along the way. It’s also good to have mistakes under your belt because a common interview question is “give me an example of a time you did something wrong,” which helps interviewers see how you handle adversity.
If you have a deadline to meet, you might overlook certain aspects of your data or not check over calculations, leading to incorrect figures in your presentation. It’s important to let your boss know, so she is not shocked when an external client mentions it and work to fix it, if you can. It’s also important to keep your head held high, work to salvage your relationship with clients and boss and not make the same mistake twice. We make thousands of decisions every day, so you need to take it in stride.
Since we frequently send emails or Slack messages or post to social media accounts, it would be tedious to double check everything we send. However, if you’re not paying attention, you could accidentally post to a company social media account instead of a personal one. You could use Slack to accidentally send “this is so annoying” to your boss, instead of your coworker and have to do some damage control afterward.
You’re wearing multiple hats, so you’ve slipped and double booked a conference room. You might feel panicked because you don’t want you or the organization to look disorganized and unprofessional. However, you could solve the issue by being proactive and finding other rooms, determining spacing dependent on the client relationship and familiarity with the office and any other ways you think could make both meetings run smoothly.
Missed deadlines occur when not staying on top of tasks, disorganization or miscommunication. According to a case study from Harvard Business Review, Katie Silberman, associator director of the Science & Environmental Health Network, missed a deadline for her non-profit organization’s grant applications due to miscommunication. There was an informal grant review committee meeting of which she was unaware, but as soon as she missed the deadline, Katie called her boss, explained the mistake and brought solutions. Katie then created a calendar of deadlines that included informal ones in addition to the hard dates.
When your manager’s disappointed in your performance, it’s typically hard for them to hide it. One indicator could be that a boss with whom you were previously friendly is getting curt and agitated with everything you do, according to Jill Santopietro Panall, HR consultant and owner of 21Oak HR Consulting, LLC. The opposite is also true says Valerie Streif, senior adviser at Menta, as in “if they have become more aloof or seem to be avoiding any conversation with you except for essential communication”.
While it might seem nice if your boss removes you from projects, be wary. This could be a sign that they don’t think you’re capable of handling the work. Typically, “employees who perform well are typically rewarded with more responsibility and more complex tasks, leading to career growth and paving the way for future promotions,” says Mary Grace Gardner, career strategist at The Young Professionista.
"Depending on how bad your first performance review was, you may be given a chance to make corrections and improve, but a series of critical performance reviews could be a major sign that your job is in jeopardy," Michael Kerr, an international business speaker told Business Insider. Some issues are fixable, such as lack of training. But, if it’s more about your personality and culture fit with the organization, it might be time to look elsewhere.
We frequently hear the first part of the phrase "to err is to human”, but rarely do we listen to the second part “to forgive divine”. While English poet Alexander Pope wasn’t describing workplace mistakes explicitly, it’s an important message to tell ourselves when things go awry. We also owe it to ourselves to understand why the error happened, fix it and move in.
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