The 8 Things Forward-Thinking People Do After Messing Up At Work

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
July 13, 2024 at 1:48PM UTC
We're all human, and humans make mistakes. Sometimes, humans make mistakes in the workplace. If this happens to you, it's obviously stressful — but it isn't the end of the world. Owning up to your mistake, using it as a learning opportunity and taking steps to ensure it won't happen again are just a few things you can do to right the ship after a mistake at work. Following the eight-step approach outlined below will help you fix, learn from and protect yourself against recurrences of workplace mistakes.

What to do after you make a mistake.

1. Own up to the mistake.

First and foremost, own up to your mistake. Don't try to blame it on others or to shirk responsibility for it. People will judge you far more harshly for avoiding responsibility for your mistake after making it as opposed to being upfront about it and taking responsibility for it. Don't gloss over the mistake and hope others won't notice them, either — odds are, they will, and it will be worse if you let the mistake fester and potentially snowball into something bigger down the line.
However, don't take this too far. If the mistake in question is shared between you and another party or parties, don't take the heat for their share of the mistake. It's absolutely reasonable to acknowledge the part of the mistake that you own and limit yourself to only that part of the mistake. Don't take on the additional burden of taking the blame for your coworker's mistake, too.

2. Do what you can to fix or mitigate the mistake.

If you can, fix your mistake. In some cases, this can be relatively easy, and you'll be able to fully correct it and its consequences can be mitigated. In more complex cases, it may be impossible to fully correct your mistake, in which case you should do the best you can to fix the problem and minimize its impact.
If you're lucky, you can fix your mistake by yourself (in which case, you should act as soon as possible to correct it). If the mistake requires a supervisor or higher up's involvement to fix, you should contact one of them as soon as possible with an action plan ready to go. While it will be uncomfortable to admit to your mistake this way, raising the alert on your slip-up as soon as possible demonstrates initiative and willingness to own your mistakes.

3. Apologize — only once — to affected or necessary parties.

Deliver a single heartfelt but dignified apology. Then, move on. While it may be tempting to apologize repeatedly, especially if your mistake is fairly large, this is another mistake. It can be wearisome for the other party to continually reassure you — not to mention that continuing to apologize for your mistake will keep it top of mind for the person you're apologizing to, so it will make it harder for them to move on from it.

4. Accept the consequences.

Just as elsewhere in life, mistakes at work often come with consequences. Regardless of what the consequence is (unless it's blatantly wrong or illegal), accept it with a good attitude and take it as a deserved consequence of your mistake. This single act will speak volumes about how seriously you take the mistake, and others will notice and appreciate that attitude. Whining about your punishment will look unprofessional and, frankly, childish — so avoid it at costs.

5. Learn from the mistake.

Take your mistake as a learning opportunity. If the mistake happened due to lack of familiarity with certain concepts or tools, us it as an impetus to gain more competence with the concept or tool in question. If the mistake was due to sloppiness or inattention to detail, take it as a cue to be more detail-oriented in the future. Adopting a growth mindset and using your mistake to improve yourself is one of the best ways to move on.

6. Develop a plan to avoid future slip-ups.

On a related note, developing a plan to avoid future slip-ups is a good idea after making a workplace mistake. Establish guardrails to ensure that you won't make repeat it. What exactly these guardrails will look like depends on the original mistake — but spending some time to assess the cause after the fact is a good starting point. Once you know what led to it, you can develop a plan to prevent recurrences.

7. Earn trust back through consistent success.

In the workplace, people judge you based on your performance. While a mistake is a setback, it's not the end of the road. Dusting yourself off and going on to produce consistent, high-quality work is the best way to bounce back. Setting a track record of reliable success is the single best way to show your colleagues and supervisor(s) that your mistake was a one-time occurrence, rather than a norm by which they should assess your overall performance. 
This is a great example of "show, don't tell." The people you work with want to be shown, not told, that you won't repeat your previous mistake. Building a track record of reliability and consistent success is the best way to show that you're an asset to your company.

8. Slow down and take a second look.

Oftentimes, workplace mistakes are the result of moving too quickly and failing to take time to check your work. In this sense, work is a lot like taking a test — spending a few minutes checking your work will never be time wasted. Make a habit of building time into your work plans to review, revise and quality-check your work.

How to move forward.

After you've addressed the immediate consequences of your mistake, a few important pointers will help you move forward from it. These include:
  • Move on mentally and consciously choose not to dwell on it. 
  • Look for — and celebrate — small wins that show it was a one-off rather than the norm.
  • Guard against making further mistakes.
  • Reflect, but don't dwell, on what happened and use it to inform ongoing growth and development.
  • Cultivate compassion for other coworkers by recognizing that everyone — including you yourself — is fallible and can use a break every once in a while.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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