Career & Leadership Coach, Korn Ferry Advance
7 Steps to Bounce Back from a Work Mistake
Deleting a presentation. Sending a typo-filled email to a client. Signing off on a strategy that failed. Work blunders are outrageously common. According to one 2021 study, employees make, on average, more than 100 mistakes at work per year.
Most errors can’t be absolved with a simple, “Oops, my bad,” either. (Try saying that to the boss after not showing up at an important meeting with customers.) Managed poorly, work errors can erode trust between the mistake-makers and their colleagues, bosses, and customers.
Still, individual mistakes are not career killers. In most cases, there’s a good chance a worker can bounce back, and even strengthen their work ties. “Making a mistake can allow you to self-reflect, pay greater attention to your work, and expand your awareness,” says Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Here’s what to do after making a mistake at work.
Don’t try to cover up an error, experts say. It’s far better to highlight a mistake than to have the boss find out about it later, says Frances Weir, a career coach for Korn Ferry Advance. Tell whoever was affected by the mistake that you are addressing it. If you can’t fix it yourself, loop in colleagues who can help. Then let everyone know when the mistake is rectified. For leaders, talking about your mistake—and showing vulnerability—also can make you more relatable to your direct reports.
Whether the mistake was yours alone or your team’s, tell people you’re sorry that it’s causing problems or hassles for others. Don’t be defensive or make your apology about yourself, either. People care much more about the impact of the error—and how you will address it—than they do your intent.
Get to the bottom of the error.
Too much multitasking? Miscommunication with a colleague? Plain old forgetfulness? Once you’ve discovered the error, figure out how it was made. “Taking ownership is part of the job,” Weir says. Being proactive demonstrates your awareness of the problem and relieves others from the potential discomfort of bringing it to your attention.
Look on the bright side.
Depending on the mistake, you can easily become panicky or depressed. It’s OK to be upset, or even angry at yourself, but experts say it’s essential that you avoid falling into despondency. While it may sound cliché, mistakes often are teachable moments. “Instead of bouncing back from mistakes, dive into them,” says Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry’s global co-leader of CEO and enterprise leader development.
Dissecting how a mistake was made allows you to look at different, and potentially more innovative, ways to avoid making others in the future. Fixing a mistake often gives you the chance either to learn or show off your agility and creative problem-solving skills. “Resolving a mistake can be very satisfying, even though making it wasn’t,” Olson says.
Once the mistake has been handled, take some time to figure out what you can use from this experience. Perhaps the mistake highlights how you were skipping a seemingly irrelevant but clearly essential step in a process. Maybe the error revealed something you’d never even thought of before. In any case, write down what should be changed and, more importantly, incorporate that change into your work routine. “This type of thinking can help boost your resilience for the future,” says Tiffinee Swanson, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach.
Show others you’ve grown.
After a mistake, your negatives will often outweigh your positives in the minds of others. So, it’s critical to take action and be transparent about it. “Share back with your manager, customer, and peers what strategies and tactics you have been implementing to prevent the same mistake from happening in the future and build back any lost trust,” Swanson says.
Acknowledge that you’ll make another mistake.
Fixing one thing will not prevent you from committing an error somewhere else, experts emphasize. No one is infallible and admitting that can help you avoid despondency when you make another mistake.
At the same time, making mistakes is often part of a healthy creative process. Innovating can be the equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing if it sticks. “A lot of noodles will fall to the ground,” Olson says.
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