How to handle mistakes at work

It’s the way workplace mistakes are handled that can be the difference between future career success and oblivion.

Almost everyone has had that sinking feeling when they make a mistake at work. What tactics should you use to address a mistake - and salvage your professional reputation?

At this year’s World Economic Forum, Alibaba founder Jack Ma reflected on botch-ups, telling a group of young leaders: “In life, it’s not how much we achieved, it’s how much we’ve gone through the tough days and mistakes.”

Everyone makes oversights and blunders – big and small – but it’s the way workplace mistakes are handled that can be the difference between future career success and oblivion, experts suggest. Here are five tactics to try the next time you make a mistake at work.

Take time to reflect

“Emotions run high when someone makes a mistake,” says organisational psychologist Dr Penelope Faure, director executive services at career management firm Audrey Page & Associates.

Whether it’s criticism of the boss that surfaced in an email trail, a glaring omission that skewed a client’s bottom line, or the mayhem you caused by clicking on a ransomware link, as the perpetrator you’ll suffer cognitive dissonance at the moment of discovery. Embarrassment. Humiliation. Shame. Panic.

“The first tactic to deal with any mistake is to pause, inhale deeply and get perspective on what has actually happened,” Faure advises. “Let the bad feelings wash over you, and your fight-or-flight response abate.”

"Step up. Be accountable. Act quickly. Most vitally, present a solution."

Even if you’re put on the spot by your boss in a team meeting – with no prior knowledge of the error you’ve made – Faure says you should ask for time to consider the details before reacting. Crucially, don’t get defensive or argumentative.

Consider the magnitude of the mistake and its repercussions. Who (apart from you) will be affected? What’s the impact on the business?

Many variables come into play, including your relationship with those most affected, and the culture of the organisation. Your career stage is also significant, with seasoned mistake-makers better at managing smooth landings, Faure points out.

“Try not to ‘catastrophise’,” she urges. If panic prevails seek out trusted colleagues or friends to talk it through.

’Fess up or cover up?

Global business leaders – yes, Bezos, Branson and Zuckerberg included – wax on about organisations where it’s okay to make mistakes, but that still doesn’t give employees confidence when they fail.

Some workplaces are more punitive than others, and command-and-control bosses aren’t extinct.

“The unwritten rule in organisations is ‘mistakes shouldn’t happen’, and it drives people to hide them,” observes Hewsons Executive Coaching partner Carolyn Dean, who has worked with thousands of leaders and their teams in some of the world’s largest organisations, including BHP Billiton and Shell.

In some Asian cultures, saving face is a core social value, so admitting to a mistake has extra sting, Faure notes. 

“[However] the implications of not being transparent are ultimately going to be more serious than the bruise to your ego. Trying to cover it up and being found out later does nothing for your reputation.”

If a project is running off the rails, Dean recommends managing expectations. “It takes strength of character, but you’ll look better if you let someone know ASAP.”

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Own your mistake

No matter how tough the boss and the company culture, there’s a universally right way to deal with every mistake, Faure and Dean agree. Step up. Be accountable. Act quickly. Most vitally, present a solution.

“The quicker you handle it – or get to it yourself, rather than others getting to you – the better,” Dean says.

Faure advocates a humble approach and upfront apology “that’s in step with the gravity of the mistake”.

“A typo in a letter to a client does not call for self-flagellation,” she maintains.

Your explanation should cover how you have put the business at risk and how it impacts others, Dean adds. It should also encompass immediate actions you’ll take to make good, and how you’ll handle the situation longer term.

“Taking full responsibility is your best chance of lessening the negative way others may be thinking about you.”

To blame or not to blame?

Perhaps it wasn’t all your fault, but throwing colleagues under the bus is a fast track to reputational damage. Pointing to others can be tempting in matrixed organisations, where teams are dispersed across divisions and geographies, with muddled lines of accountability.

“People may form a view about your competence and that can snowball,” Faure warns. “Your colleagues and boss might assume you won’t have their backs in other situations.”

Blaming the circumstances – a market downturn, industry disruption or lack of resources – equally won’t cut it. As Dean points out, not taking responsibility stops you from exploring fixes for what went wrong.

Learn from it

The upside of a mistake is the creativity and rethinking it triggers. No matter how dire – whether it’s a sackable offence or something minor – Dean says learnings will come from answering three questions: What did I do that worked? What did I do that didn’t work? What didn’t I do that I normally would have done?

“If you don’t know the answers, go and ask someone else because to make this mistake valuable, you need to know what to do differently,” she says. 

What if your colleague makes a mistake?

Executive coach Carolyn Dean says most people do nothing when they spot a blunder by someone else in the business, because they’re afraid of the response.

“Even managers are uncomfortable pointing out a mistake to a direct report and this behaviour is epidemic in most businesses.”

The best approach is to call out their mistake directly, in a supportive way, one-on-one, but “there needs to be an understanding you’ll support one another to do your best work”, Dean declares.

Read next: How to use failure to succeed


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