Saving Face after Making Mistakes at Work


Don’t panic. Making mistakes at work is a fact of life. There are times when we all wish we had double-checked our figures, reread an email before hitting send, or removed our foot from our mouths before speaking. Though it feels terrible, there’s a lot to learn from making mistakes at work.

Once you acknowledge your error and take steps to correct it, you may emerge wiser and more capable of greater challenges ahead. But first, start saving face. Here’s five steps to take to start that process.

1. Forgive yourself first

After making mistakes at work, you likely feel embarrassed, fearful and frustrated. Maybe you raced through your day trying to finalize next quarter’s forecast when you suddenly realized that the report you emailed out earlier has an error in column K, rendering your analysis way off the mark. You’re mortified and petrified that your mistake will cast a pall over your performance forever. Take a small amount of time to acknowledge what happened, and then let it go, because you have repairs to make. Pull yourself out of the gloom of realizing you're not perfect. 

2. Confess and take responsibility

Although it’s important to understand why the mistake happened, this is no time for excuses. Take responsibility, apologize to all affected parties for your misstep and promise to do better in the future. Avoid blaming coworkers or circumstances (though you may want to consider whether certain distractions in the workplace led to your flub). Keep in mind, there’s a difference between acknowledging fault and berating yourself. Own up to your part but also display confidence in your abilities. Lastly, if your manager or peers have sound advice, listen to all criticisms and be open to their ideas to resolve the issue.

3. Do what you can to set things right

Create and communicate your plan to set things right, such as volunteering to work extra hours to undo the damage. If you caused a ripple effect that is now out of your ability to stop, let your boss or coworkers know you would still like to help, even if it means taking on some of their projects. This will help you rebuild accountability and trust. When the dust settles, follow up to see if there are additional action items you can complete.

4. Take stock of what you've learned

This is where you can find the silver lining. This experience could reveal hiccups in your process or help you be more careful in the future. Ask yourself, “What will I try to do differently? What still works?” Ask peers for feedback on how you could have avoided this blunder. Check in with your boss on the aspect of your work where the error occurred. You may have thought you understood the process, only to discover you do not.

5. Get back to work

Don’t dwell. This mistake was one moment in your career, likely amid myriad successes. So, get back into your daily work while applying your new insight. If the error comes up in later discussions, frame it as a learning experience. Focus on ongoing self-awareness and improvement and regaining faith in yourself, as well as from your team.

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