Handling A Mistake at Work

a daily reflection journal filled out with lessons, on top of another journal on a white table

You can’t go through life without making a mistake.

No one likes messing up, especially at the office. But you’re a human being and you’re bound to slip up every now and then.

While it may not seem like it at the time, making a mistake at work is a valuable learning experience. Along with learning how to take accountability and find solutions, it’s an opportunity to self-reflect and work on your performance.

It’s not necessarily about the mistake, but how you handle the mistake that really matters. Think of work mistakes as a natural part of your career development and growth. With experience and gained insight, you will become a better employee and team-member at the end of it.

From learning how to manage the mistake to communicating with your manager and coworkers about it, here are practical and effective ways to handle a mistake at work. 

Acknowledge your emotions 

When you’ve made a mistake at work, it’s easy to feel like the world is crashing down on you. Your stress levels and anxiety start to rise, and everything feels like it’s happening all at once. Take a moment to breathe, slow down, and acknowledge how you’re feeling. 

It’s also okay to release your feelings–in a professional way. Maybe it means heading to the restroom for a few minutes or taking a quick walk outside. Stepping away from your desk will help you decompress and reset. 

When you’ve made a mistake at work, it’s easy to experience a swirl of emotions–from guilt to shame and everything in between. Remind yourself that you’re human and that this mistake will not ruin your entire career.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, recite a soothing mantra to help you regain focus and take some deep breaths. 

Now it’s time to release the feelings and move forward. 

Put on your problem-solving hat

It’s important to examine the mistake and come up with different solutions. You don’t want to be the employee who makes a mistake and then has someone else clean it up. You want to be one who’s taking responsibility and offering to help.

When trying to come up with solutions, ask yourself: 

  • What can be done about the mistake? 
  • What options do I have? 
  • Who should I inform? 

It also helps to make a list of the different steps you can take. This way, you won’t have a million thoughts running through your mind, and instead, you’ll have a specific and clear action plan on paper. 

Have open communication 

After making a mistake, your first instinct will be to hide from everyone at the office, but now’s not the time to go AWOL. It’s good to keep the channels of communication open and the relevant parties informed. 

Here are some ideas on how to apologize and manage a mistake in a professional manner. 

  • Scenario: Your manager asked you for a project update or made a small request and you forgot to do it.
  • How to handle it: No need to send a lengthy apology here. A short and sweet apology is good for this type of mistake. For example: I’m so sorry, this one fell through the cracks. Let me get that to you ASAP. 
  • Scenario: You missed an important work deadline that could inconvenience your manager or the entire team. 
  • How to handle it: If you missed an important deadline, it’s best to apologize, take accountability, and let them know what you’ll do about it. “I apologize for X, and I understand that it affected the team’s ability to do Y. I’ll make sure to do a and b in the future.” 
  • Scenario: You’ve apologized for the mistake, offered a solution, but your manager or coworkers are still upset.
  • How to handle it:  If the mistake is more than just a missed deadline, it’s probably best to discuss what happened in person or over Zoom. It’s not always easy to convey nuance and sensitive details over email or text, and your message might have more impact when it’s face to face. You can start the conversation by sending an email message. “Hi X, I just wanted to check in with you about what happened last week. Would you have time to chat with me about it today? Thanks so much.” 

Reflect on lessons learned

Take a moment to reflect on the mistake and its outcome. A self-reflection exercise will help you absorb the lessons learned and better apply them in the future so that you don’t make the same mistake twice. 

So when things have calmed down and you have a quiet moment to yourself, take out your journal and reflect on the experience. Here are some prompts to help guide you:

  • What factors led to this mistake? Were you busy with work? Was it a time management issue?
  • If you had to do everything all over again what would you have done differently?
  • What lessons did you learn?
  • What would you do if this happened again in the future?

Improve your work performance

So you apologized for making the mistake and you found a solution. In order to prevent the same mistake from happening again, you’ll want to make an effort to improve your performance going forward. 

As mentioned earlier, mistakes give us a chance to learn something about ourselves and improve. If we’re not paying attention to our development, then we’ll keep making the same mistakes, which can end up hurting our professional reputation. 

Are you consistently missing work deadlines or showing up late to work? Do you find yourself procrastinating or behind on tasks? Play detective and see what’s causing these mistakes. 

  • If it’s a time management issue, then use techniques like the Pomodoro method or task batching to make sure that you’re finishing your work on time. 
  • If you’re having trouble managing your workload, then use the Eisenhower Matrix to help you identify your priorities. 
  • If you’re struggling with disorganization, try getting your workspace in order and plan out your days in advance. 

While we can’t always be perfect and error-free, we can strive to improve our work habits and performance for a more successful future. 

Written by JiJi Lee.

Share Pin it
Back to blog