Handling Mistakes at Work

After having several jobs in a short period of time, between internships, temporary assignments, project work and my full time job, I know what it’s like to make mistakes. In fact, I know a lot about navigating an office environment. I’ve put together a bit of a work series. For more posts in the series, please see below:

We all make mistakes at work. They happen. It’s not easy when you’re just starting out to be making errors, because it isn’t very good for your self esteem in your position. However, if we handle the mistakes gracefully, we can learn from them and are more unlikely to repeat them.

Own up to them

If you make a mistake at work, own up to it. Deflecting or making excuses or blaming it on other circumstances or people will only be harmful. If you find yourself trying to find a way to hide it or get around it, stop and reorient yourself.

If you don’t own up to it and somebody recognizes that, it can make you look bad and reflect poorly on your teamwork skills and self awareness.

Usually, just a simple “my mistake” will work. If it’s a big, bad mistake, a more formal apology might be necessary.

Learn from them

I would strongly recommend that when you make a mistake at work, you reflect on the error and think about how you could have changed the situation, what made you made that mistake, and what you can do next time.

For instance, if I was on a deadline writing an email and called the person by the wrong name, I might stop and think about WHY the mistake was made.

Was I rushed? Was I being lazy? Is there a pattern with the results of this exercise between now and previous mistakes? If there is, there might be a trigger. If I’m rushed, I make a lot more mistakes than if I have plenty of time. If I’m writing an important memo, I might make more errors because I’m nervous about sending it and making it perfect, so I overlook the little things. Maybe next time, I need to have somebody look over the email or memo prior to me sending it out.

Keep this in mind the next time you are doing a similar task, because making the same mistake twice can reflect poorly on you.

Apologize, correct yourself, and move on

You may be embarrassed about your mistake, but if it’s a little mistake, changes are nobody noticed or cared. Things that might seem like a big deal to you may not even register on other people’s radar. Don’t make a bigger deal out of a minor error than you need to; simply apologize, correct your error, and move on.

Fix them, don’t leave it to others

A little mistake will become a big deal to a different party if they have to fix it. Nobody should have to fix an error that they didn’t perform, so be sure to rectify the mistake as soon as possible to minimize any inconvenience to others.

 

Making errors at work can be embarrassing and many people become defensive or evasive when faced with a mistake that they made. However, the best way to handle a mistake is to own up to it, fix it, and be sure to learn from the mistake.


Comments

Handling Mistakes at Work — 46 Comments

  1. You’ve got the right attitude to own up to your mistakes. Being defensive never really works and usually just makes yourself look bad. But while it’s okay to encourage others to improve, there’s also no reason for this guy to be douche and make an example of you in front of everyone. Some people can only make themselves look good by tearing down others – we’ve got a few of those at my place too!

  2. Sounds like you handle those mistakes in a very responsible manner Daisy. Unfortunately in some companies there will be people who will do everything possible for ever taking the blame for anything. In the rush to climb the corporate ladder those people don’t care who they have to step on. A smart boss should be able to recognize that kind of behavior. Just make sure you’re not accepting too much blame and criticism that gets deflected from those kinds of people.

  3. Other people not owning up to their own mistakes is why I’m glad I work for and by myself. When I worked in a veterinary hospital mistakes would get made occasionally but when your about to give a dog the wrong kind of medicine because of that mistake it can be serious. I understand the fear of owning up to a mistake I just can’t understand the irresponsibility of a person when they choose not to

  4. A lot of employees wouldn’t be scared to make mistakes if their bosses approached them properly about it. One of the biggest problems with leaders/managers is that they don’t know what they’re doing. Admonishing somebody in front of the whole office is the absolute worst thing you can do for your employee. No wonder you were scared to make more mistakes.

    While you obviously learned how to handle problems better, it would have been an easier process if your boss actually knew how to manage people well.

  5. This just happened to me last week. It’s best to just own up right away and move on. I know how you feel about mistakes spiraling, because that seems to happen to me, too.

  6. It’s extremely important to own up to your mistakes. Most people are reasonable and will understand. Unless you keep making the same mistake over and over, they won’t care too much. On the other hand, blaming others for your mistakes is a great way to alienate yourself and take office politic to the next level.

  7. I love making mistakes at work. If we were perfect 100% of the time then that would mean we’re not being challenged enough which is dangerous because that can lead to stagnation and boredom. Plus bosses like people who are proactive. If no one at work tried to do better then the company will eventually lose its competitive edge. As long as we own up to our mistakes and learn from them it’s all good :grin: .

  8. owning the mistake is the most important thing.. if you try to hide it, it will only end up bad.

    i have actually seen multiple folks who have lost their jobs over the years by making a mistake and trying to hide it. when things go horribly wrong.. there will be an investigation, and if your are caught.. things WILL get ugly.

    nobody expects perfection, and everyone makes mistakes..

  9. Great advice there. Sounds like even if you followed these steps at your internship, wound’t have made a difference. I think if you own up to your mistake and make an effort to improve and learn from it, you should be seen as a valuable asset to the company. I would never keep someone who always blame-shifted and tried to look “perfect”.

    When I make a mistake, I’m harder on myself than anyone else is. I go out of my way to apologize and make up for it any way I can. I want to show that I not only care, but am willing to do what it takes for the success of the company. If my bosses think that makes me a bad employee, I don’t want to work for them.

  10. If you did something wrong then fix it. Don’t blame others and don’t even think of cover it, because it’s going to return on you twice’s bad. If you don’t know how to fix it, then apologize and ask for help. Remember that, for every mistake there is a solution.

  11. I hate when people play the blame game when they fully know they made the mistake. I have much more respect for the person that takes responsibility for the mistakes that they made, and even more respect when they take it upon themselves to fix it.

  12. I totally agree you should own up to mistakes. I learnt this early on in life after being caught out on some things. It wasn’t that I was trying to be dishonest, I was just young and didn’t have the maturity to deal with the situation properly. You only make things worse for yourself in the long run by hiding mistakes!

  13. I’m sorry that you had to go through such a horrendous experience with internship #1. However, You gained some great experience and some important work values, and they have obviously made you a more efficient employee. Your suggestions are spot on, and need to be read repeatedly.

  14. Amen! I’ve found these work better and make coworkers like/respect you more anyways. I’m just schooling it up right now, but the BF sometimes has trouble with a coworker who likes to blame their mistakes on everyone else, clients, the universe…it gets old and the problem would be fixed in like 2 seconds if they were like “Okay, my bad,” and adjusted accordingly the next time when it came up.

  15. Like many other people have said, and you have said, owning up to your mistakes is huge. Mistakes happen to everyone, but not everyone owns up to them. I hate working with the people who don’t because everyone knows it was their fault and they are not big enough to admit it.

  16. I love the fact that you said “own up to them.” So many times people don’t take accountability for their own actions and it’s super frustrating!!! It requires a lot of character and integrity to say, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.”

  17. Excellent advice. I make mistakes and always try to fix them myself because I hate having to correct other’s mistakes. I do own up to them as well-I really dislike hearing a coworker say “oh so and so did it not me-they were using my user name.” Which is an entirely different mistake all on it’s own! And learning from mistakes can be so helpful. When I was just learning this job, I made an error that took us (the person training me and myself) a better part of a day to fix. But I’ve never made that mistake again. I know how much work went into fixing it and don’t want to go there again.

  18. “Don’t make a bigger deal out of a minor error than you need to.” Even in teh blue collar world, this is great advice. Some guys make a huge deal out of little mistakes or making a big scene to coverup a mistake they’ve made. Not needed. It just makes things worse. If they’d just own up to their mistakes and fix it, no one would think twice!

  19. Well said. I think back to my first full time jobs and feel a flush of embarrassment about how naive I was and how I never took responsibility for anything bad or lacking I’d done. Time is a great teacher.

  20. I think learning from our mistakes is key. It’s easy to let someone off easy (when they make a mistake), if it’s the first of its kind. If someone makes the same mistake over and over though… it’s not so quickly forgiven!

  21. Owning up to your mistakes is very important. Often, people who know who made the mistake and denying it only makes things worse. Of course, once you own up to it, you need to learn from it so you don’t repeat the same mistakes.

  22. You have to be able to recover from mistakes at work, because everyone makes them. I made a stupid mistake recently that caused us to have to rerun an entire process that five other people were involved in. I essentially said “Sorry, dumb mistake, I don’t know what I was thinking” and people were understanding.

    As long as you are understanding of other people when they make mistakes, they will reciprocate.

  23. I agree with you for most part, and it’s never good to be a whining little b***h, however some mistakes happen due to others dropping the ball, especially in positions that relay on others. Thankfully I’m in no such position, so I live and die by my quality of work.

  24. I HATE HATE HATE making mistakes at work. It is partly because I am a perfectionist and partly because I truly, deep down, want to do a good job. I agree with you- own your mistakes, reflect on them, fix them, and try not to make them again. Thanks for the reminder!

  25. I think that even if others are partly to blame, you should think twice about pointing the finger. It’s a tough instinct to fight because when accused of making a mistake your gut reaction is to deny and shift the blame.

    I recently was involved a big snafu that resulted from a miscommunication toward me, and while I accepted the responsibility, the wronged party was understanding, and they guessed correctly that it wasn’t all on my shoulders.

    As for the name thing… that’s funny. People get my name wrong all. the. time. I don’t care. But there are some people who get in a total snit if you get, say, one letter in their name wrong. Divas.

  26. Those are all great tips. Owning your mistake is so important – don’t blame others, accept responsibility, learn from it, move on!

    My staff are used to working in a culture of fear – mistakes always led to discipline. I’ve tried to get them to understand that honest mistakes are part of being human, and I want them to make decisions, even if they wind up being “wrong” – it helps them grow!

    Now if only my management team felt the same way…

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  37. There is a manager at my work and whenever she is there I get nervous and the more nervous I am I got more mistakes. What can I do?

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  39. Ugh. I feel like I’m living this right now. I worked for the same company for 5 years and by the time I left, I’d forgotten how rough it is just starting out. I feel like at my current job, I just keep messing stuff up. I get it’s part of the learning process, but I feel like my boss is endlessly exasperated with me and thinks I’m an idiot… a few coworkers have mentioned he doesn’t think this, which is the only thing keeping me sane. The best I can really do is make sure to never make the same mistake twice.

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