How to Recover When You Make a Mistake at Work

I’ve made many mistakes in my career. There are times I’ve made the wrong call, said the wrong thing, or fumbled an important detail. I’d wager any successful person can say the same.

It’s tempting to dwell on a mistake, but focusing on what you do after is a more valuable use of your time. And your handling of the aftermath will be far more memorable than the mistake itself.

1. Act Transparently

This step is an important one — so important it happens to be one of Atomic Object’s values. Now is the time to come clean and tell anyone that your mistake affects. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was, so save any excuses. What matters is that you explain the situation with humility as soon as possible.

  • If the mistake affects a client, let them know up front. This allows them to make smart business decisions with all the relevant information.
  • Be honest with your team. None of us is perfect, and it’s much healthier to learn together than to pretend you know everything. Opening up provides an opportunity to commiserate, seek advice, and foster psychological safety.
  • For big mistakes, speak candidly with your manager. It’s their job to make sure you do your job correctly. They can only do that with full knowledge of any areas that may need improvement. A good manager will listen and help you course-correct going forward. One tip: if you’re only telling them for awareness and don’t need their help fixing the error, preface that up front.

Apologize if needed, but don’t overdo it. Mistakes are a part of life. What’s more important is how you fix it.

2. Fix It

When communicating your mistake, come prepared with solutions. In a best-case scenario, you’ll have already fixed your mistake. If not, brainstorm two or three approaches for handling it or mitigating the impact. I like to approach the conversation something like this:

  • Give an executive summary of what happened.
  • Offer a couple of solutions, including my recommended approach.
  • Ask if the other party agrees or has another idea.

From there, accept the consequences and clean up the mess. It’s important that you follow through and try to create as little headache as possible for others. But don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. If your mistake caused extra work for someone else, consider sending a nice thank you card or a small token of your appreciation.

3. Learn from It

Afterward, take some time to reflect. Do you know why the mistake happened? The only thing worse than an error is making the same error twice. Think about if there’s anything you’d do differently next time.

Sometimes, you have to chalk it up to ignorance — live and learn. Other times, you may learn you need a better organizational system in place. Or perhaps you’re running on empty. Sleep deprivation and an unsustainable pace are often my main culprits. Take time to slow down and take care of yourself; your work will be better for it. Whatever the reason, identify it and commit to doing better next time.

4. Move On

If you’re anything like me, you’re your own worst critic. I replay my mistakes over in my head long after everyone else has forgotten them. The worst thing you can do is obsess over them, further distracting you from the tasks at hand.

If your main focus is to avoid mishaps, you’ll always play it safe and never take the risks necessary for success. Try to remember that mistakes have their own value; for instance, they can help us recognize when we’ve been going down the wrong path. Then turn every mistake into an opportunity to fail forward and practice resilience.

It may take a little time to gain your confidence back after you mess up. Accept that occasional mistakes are not only inevitable but essential to learning and growth. Don’t let your mistakes define you; keep moving forward.