The ABC to recovering from a mistake at work

I’ll never forget my first job or my first boss.  Nor will I forget the first mistake I made on that job, or the unexpected reply I got from my boss when I plucked up the courage to own up to my mistake.

While none of us willingly desires to slip up at work, unfortunately, sometimes we do.  

To what extent our mistake at work will tarnish our reputation is very much dependant on the steps we take afterward to make amends for our mistake.  

Mistakes can break us. The extent of the damage and the motives behind it might even cost us our job. But a mistake can also make us - because it will reveal who we really are when the chips are down... 

A – Admit your mistake

As soon as it happens, admit that you made a mistake.

Perhaps the first person you need to admit it to is yourself.  All too often panic strikes and there is a rush to make hasty amends in an effort to rectify the mistake. This might work sometimes, but most of the time, it just makes the situation worse.  Like rushing to remove a stain, not using the right products, and just making the stain look bigger and worse.  Staying calm is difficult but key. Self-admittance comes with the realisation that nobody can be perfect all the time, and we all make mistakes.

The next step is admitting to your colleagues and superiors.  

The gravity of the mistake will indicate to what level you will need to report. This again is a time to stay composed and thinking in advance about your best approach. Admitting will also need to come with an apology. This will convey how genuinely sorry you are for your mistake. No need to be too emotional or to beat yourself up, because this will stress out those who will need to help you work through your mistake. Do not postpone owning up to a mistake too long. Others will notice it, and then it will be very difficult to persuade others that you were going to admit and apologise for your mistake. And most importantly, do not apologize for your mistakes over and over again - do it once and truly mean it. There’s nothing worse than dwelling on something that's already done.

B – Blame no one

Blame is an excellent defense mechanism. 

It’s much easier to blame someone else rather than to accept responsibility. But admitting a mistake means owning up to it as your own mistake. Sometimes the situation can be a bit blurred here. Is the employee to blame for the mistake? Or is it the supervisor’s fault for giving incomplete instructions? Who is going to take ownership of a mistake in such an environment? Will the supervisor lie, and play the blame game by saying instructions were given correctly but misinterpreted? Blame is a tool used when in attack mode, as is lying.

Ideally, some mistakes will entail team discussion, so that the fault for the mistake, if applicable, can be attributed to the whole team rather than to one individual. 

One thing to remember before blaming others is that the more often you play the blame game, the more you lose.  You need to learn how to own up to the ‘role’ you played in the mistake. Being accountable for one’s own actions is a quality that can get you noticed at work, even if it's at the expense of making a mistake that you thought might ruin your reputation.

C – Correct your mistake

It’s no use crying over spilled milk, but you can at least mop it up from the floor.  

Try to see if you can come up with a plan to rectify your mistake. This will not be possible in all cases but try to suggest some solutions or give evidence of a brainstorming exercise that has been carried out to come up with ways to make amends for the mistake. It’s always good to come up with Plan A and Plan B, even if your superior might eventually overrule and suggest another way forward. But your efforts at making amends will not have been lost and they will also serve to demonstrate your problem-solving skills.

Your team may also benefit from solving a mistake together. They say teamwork makes dream work, and sometimes you just need a fresh perspective to help. All companies are faced with a crisis at some point, and having workers who can solve problems is good for the workforce.  

And finally, be prepared to work extra to ensure that you correct your mistake. Making up for something means that you are ready to give up your time to make things better. Financially, we may never be able to ‘pay’ for our mistake, but staying on after work and offering to do that little extra to make amends will all point towards being genuine with our apology and demonstrate that we are truly sorry for our mistake.

Back to my first boss and my first mistake. Well, at first, he did seem a bit annoyed, but my face must have displayed the right degree of remorse. 

He told me that it was expected that sometimes I would make a mistake, just as long as I would be careful in the future, not to make the same mistake twice. “Mistakes are made, and lessons are learned”, he ended.  

I never repeated that same mistake again. I also got that promotion when it was due.

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