Problems Happen: How to Mitigate Them at Work

A woman sitting at a table looks stressed

Whether you’re the CEO or a junior staffer who’s just starting out, it’s essential that you know how to mitigate problems at work and find solutions.

Maybe a project’s behind schedule. Or a high-profile client is unhappy with a product. Or a customer hasn’t received their delivery on time. At first, you might be reluctant to share this problem with others. You might even attempt to problem solve this on your own as a way to keep your manager from panicking or overreacting.

But it’s important to remember that all projects are going to hit a bump in the road—you may even be responsible for some of those bumps. And while it’s never easy to admit fault, a big part of being a professional is knowing how to deliver bad news and manage problems before they escalate.

There are going to be times in your career when you’ll be responsible for something going off the rails—major shipping delays or an approval that doesn’t come through or dropping the ball on a project. So while you can’t avoid problems, you can do a better job of managing your mistakes and letting the right people know in a timely way. 

Think of work problems as a potential learning opportunity. Obviously, no one likes making mistakes and fessing up to them, but it’s through these challenging experiences that you will learn how to communicate, make smart decisions, and build trust. 

So when things go wrong at work, here are the different ways that you can make them right again and get back on track. 

Identify the problem

Work problems come in varying shapes and sizes. And how you respond to a problem will largely depend on the size of the problem and its impact on others. For instance, you probably don’t want to publicize a minor slip-up, which could draw more attention and turn it into a bigger problem than it is.

  • Slip-ups. Maybe you submitted an article with a few typos or you forgot to respond to a client’s email. Accidental slip-ups happen and they’re usually harmless in the long run. 
  • Impactful problems. These are problems that could negatively impact key stakeholders, such as your manager, partners, clients, customers, or advertisers. For example, if you messed up a customer’s order or your client’s website is down or you forgot to communicate an important message to all the relevant people. 

When a problem impacts key stakeholders, you definitely want to manage it right away and respond effectively. 

Own the problem 

You want to let your manager or key stakeholders know about the problem before they find out about it from someone else. 

This is not the time to point fingers and cast blame. Take ownership of the problem and then rise to the occasion by finding solutions and getting things back in order.

Communicate. When you own the problem, you are also conveying this information to the relevant stakeholders involved. Take a moment to identify the key people who need to be aware of what’s going on, and who might be affected by this problem.

Depending on the urgency and sensitivity of the issue, an email is generally fine in this type of situation. Plus, people who are on the email will also be aware of who’s been informed—therefore saving them time from having to do any guesswork or send duplicate messages. 

Provide a timeline. Not only is it important to acknowledge the problem but it’s essential that you provide a timeline as well. 

When faced with an email outage or a shipping delay, customers and clients don’t want to hear you say “I’m not sure.” Even if you’re not certain of when things will be resolved, give them an estimated timeline to assuage their fears. Example: I’ll fix that ASAP or I’ll update you by close of business

Brainstorm ways to make it right

Here’s a scenario: a customer didn’t receive their shipment on time and your team was responsible for the delay. 

You could always provide a sincere apology and stop there. But what if you could flip the script and make things right? 

As restaurateur Danny Meyer explains in this interview, mistakes are an opportunity to “write a next great chapter.” Think about it: a customer could either spend their time complaining about your company and product. Or, they could end up telling everyone they know about the amazing customer service they received.  

So now you have the ability to turn this problem into one of your biggest wins, and create an unforgettable memory for your customer. 

Returning to the earlier example of the customer and the late shipment, you could send an email to apologize, provide a timeline of when they can expect their shipment, and then… go above and beyond. Maybe it’s offering them a complimentary product, or a free sample of a product that hasn’t even been launched yet, or it’s sending a gift to a friend or family member in their name. 

Not only will you have successfully mitigated a problem, but you will have also turned this negative situation into one that is both positive and memorable for the people involved. 

Post-problem: reflect on lessons learned

The problem doesn’t end when it’s been resolved. The crucial part is to reflect on the problem and your response to it so that you can be better prepared in the future

Ask yourself: 

  • What exactly was the problem? 
  • What went wrong? 
  • Who was impacted? 
  • How could this have been prevented? 
  • What would I have done differently?
  • What can I improve on?

After doing this exercise, maybe you’ll learn that this problem stemmed from a communication issue with the team, and that moving forward, you’ll make an effort to share regular status updates with them.  

Or maybe you’ll discover that it was an organization issue, and that you’ll work on your time management and productivity to prevent the same mistakes from happening again. 

It’s never easy to take ownership of a problem. But overcoming these challenges will make you a stronger and better employee in the end, and equip you with the necessary skills to move ahead in your career.

Written by JiJi Lee.

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