Careers advice

What to do when you make a mistake at work

How do you acknowledge making a mistake at work?

That stomach-dropping second when you realise you’ve made a mistake is one you’d probably prefer not to think about, but when you’re in that moment you need to make the right follow-up decisions.

To help you get over making a mistake at work quickly, we’re going to outline how you should respond to this unwanted episode so that you can get back on your feet and move on.

Note, the advice in this article is general in nature, and we won’t be going into the specifics of certain issues that might arise in different workplaces.

What do you do when you make a mistake at work?

1. Take a moment

While your mind might be racing a million miles a minute, the last thing you want to do is rush into action. There are a few reasons why taking a minute is important in this situation. Firstly, you need to know what happened:. Before you tell anyone what has happened, you need to get all of the facts right yourself. Who knows, the mistake might not be that bad, so it’s well worth getting a full understanding of things yourself before letting anyone else know.

Also, you need time to process. If the issue is serious enough that you need to let other people know, you need to be able to do this in an objective way. So have a moment, breathe and compose yourself.

Take a minute to process what has happened.

2. Maintain perspective

Taking pride in your work is great, and no one wants to let the team down. But mistakes happen and even the most successful people have got things wrong from time-to-time. This means that, as serious as it might seem right now, it’s important to try and keep things in perspective.

We’re not saying that you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel bad for a moment, this is an important part of processing what happened, but you shouldn’t allow what happened to consume all of your mental capacity. This is especially true when you leave work. Even when things are going well, you shouldn’t be taking work home with you, and when you’ve got a negative shadow hanging over you, it’s even more important that you have time to switch off.

3. Own what happened

Perhaps even worse than taking things too much to heart, is trying to pretend you didn’t do anything wrong, or burying what happened. Given that it’s highly unlikely that only you have oversight on what you’re working on, there’s a good chance that any attempt to sweep your mistake under the rug will fail.

At best, you look untrustworthy and like a poor team player. At worst, it could make an already tricky situation even worse for you and your career. That’s why it’s important to be honest about what happened and accept responsibility. We’re not saying this will mean you get off scot-free, but it’s a lot better than trying to keep it secret.

4. ...but don’t go overboard with the apologies

When you’re feeling guilty about something, it’s easy to start really beating yourself up and apologising way more than you need to. Ultimately, when you decide who you need to tell what they’re going to want to hear is what happened, that you’re taking responsibility for it and that you have a plan to put it right. Most importantly, you need to avoid:

  • Making excuses: this isn’t a good look, and means it looks like you aren’t taking responsibility in the first place.
  • Blaming other people: this is even worse than making excuses for yourself. All modern day businesses try to operate as a team, and throwing your colleagues under the bus is the furthest you can get from being a good team player.
  • Beating yourself up: you might think that doing this will show that you’re real.

Apologise, but focus on how you're going to make things right.

5. Work on the recovery

Once you’ve corrected the mistake, you’re going to want to prove (both to yourself and those around you) that it was only a temporary blip.

Our advice? Don’t push it. You don’t need to suddenly put heaps of pressure on yourself to perform exponentially better. In fact, doing this is likely to end up with you making another mistake, because you’re trying too hard.

Really, the best thing you can do is settle back into your normal routine, and return to consistently delivering high quality work on a regular basis.

6. Learn from it

Depending on the mistake, you may have already had meetings with your boss to talk through what happened. However, when the dust settles, we advise taking a few minutes to yourself to have a quick retrospective look at what went wrong to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

You don’t need to share this with anyone, but it should give you the extra confidence that you won’t be feeling this way again anytime soon.