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Had a bad day? Here’s what to do when you mess up at work

September 23, 2022 - 14 min read

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Is it normal to make mistakes at work?

What to do when you make a mistake

I keep messing up at work. Should I quit?

When was the last time you messed up at work? You know, like writing an embarrassing typo in an email, sending your boss to the wrong address for a meeting, or arriving to work late because your phone died and the alarm didn’t go off.

These kinds of errors make your heart drop. Few things are as anxiety-inducing as realizing you got something wrong — especially if you find out at the last minute.

It’s normal to fear mistakes. No one wants to risk upsetting their boss or letting their colleagues down. You may even fear losing your job. And if you have very high standards for yourself, you’ll likely be your own worse critic.

But these mishaps don’t have to be the end of the world. Every mistake is a learning opportunity, and it’s up to you to take advantage. Here's what to do when you mess up at work.

Is it normal to make mistakes at work?

If you have mistake-at-work anxiety, this fact might not be comforting to you: mistakes are unavoidable and 100% normal. You can’t be perfect of the time, and that’s okay! To err is to be human, and to be human is better than being a robot.

But letting go can be difficult, especially if you have a fear of imperfection or suffer from imposter syndrome. In fact, up to 82% of working Americans think they’re inferior workers, which can contribute to increased anxiety, depression, and risk of burnout.

You read that right. It’s likely that almost all of your colleagues feel just as bad about messing up as you do. When you inevitably make a mistake, try not to beat yourself up over it.

Most mistakes aren’t a big deal and offer learning experiences that help you become a great employee. There are many positive outcomes to consider:

  • When you make a mistake, you’re expanding your skills. It’s easy to avoid mistakes when you’re not challenging yourself, which means you won’t learn something new. Failure is the greatest teacher, so try looking at mistakes as a chance to gain wisdom and experience.
  • Owning up to your mistakes can bring you closer to management. If you’re honest about your shortcomings, you can discuss them with your boss and set goals together. As you progress, you can celebrate your wins, and they’ll know you care.

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Not all mistakes are equal

Be mindful of the types of errors you make that need improving. You can stress less about minor mistakes that come from challenging yourself and expanding your skills. But this doesn’t give you a free pass on negligence, such as:

  • Always arriving late. Sometimes extraneous circumstances cause you to be late — that’s fine. But depending on your workplace culture, it could hurt your reputation if it becomes a habit.
  • Showing up to a meeting unprepared. If you received the meeting agenda in advance, it’s important to know where you fit in. Your boss may have specific questions for you, so it’s worth preparing.
  • Ignoring feedback. Repeatedly making the same mistake shows you’re not learning. Some issues take time to resolve, but you must show you’re putting in the effort.

If you’re having trouble avoiding easy mistakes, BetterUp can help. You may need to work on your Mental Fitness, improve your time-management skills, or learn how to implement feedback. With one of our coaches, you can tackle these challenges head-on and maximize your potential. 

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What to do when you make a mistake

Because mistakes are unavoidable, you should focus on recovering gracefully. Here are some best practices.

1. Admit it early

It’s important to fess up early to keep your small error from turning into a big mistake. Sit down with your superiors and any other important team members to offer a graceful apology. You might choose to do this in person, with a phone call, or via email, depending on the severity of the incident.

There’s no need to go over the top here. Be professional, direct, and clear. Acknowledge your mistake without being overly critical of yourself.

2. Take a moment to recuperate

No one’s more upset about this mistake than you. After all, you know what you’re capable of. It’s normal to feel frustrated or discouraged.

Take some time to lick your wounds and practice self-care. You can try:

And, most of all, remember that you’ve survived all the mistakes you’ve made so far. You can do it again.

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3. Accept the consequences with your chin up

Depending on the severity of your mistake, your organization may need to take disciplinary action. Accept them gracefully and remain respectful. Try to keep a positive attitude as you make amends and avoid extreme emotional responses.

4. Address any burned bridges

Don’t forget you’re part of a team. Your mistake might have negatively affected others. Perhaps their tasks depended on you completing yours and they may have to work extra hours to make up for your error.

It’s important to preserve these relationships to maintain a positive work environment. Offer them a sincere apology. And depending on the nature of your relationship, try taking them out to lunch or coffee to smooth things over.

5. Apologize

Don’t wait too long before apologizing to the appropriate person. This is the most important thing you can do after a major mistake. 

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Here are the hallmarks of a good apology, with some examples:

  • Be honest about what happened. “Even though you couldn’t make it, I decided to attend the client meeting on my own. I said something wrong, and the client backed out of the deal.” 
  • Express remorse. “I’m sorry I took this meeting even though you told me to cancel. I didn’t mean to put you in this position.”
  • Offer an explanation, but not an excuse. “Because it took so long to secure this meeting, I thought it would be best not to cancel. I was also excited to win my first client. I realize now that I was wrong.”
  • Explain how you’ll change in the future. “In the future, I’ll trust your judgment and cancel the meeting when asked. I’ll also consult you before I interact with any future clients.”
  • Request forgiveness. “I hope you’ll forgive me for this mistake. I’ll do whatever I can to make up for it.”

6. Learn from your mistakes

Your next step should be self-reflection. You need to get to the bottom of your mistakes and identify why they happened in the first place. This will help you prevent them in the future. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What was your environment like at the time of the mistake? Perhaps you had a difficult co-worker distracting you at your desk while you were writing your report. It’s reasonable to think this might have pulled your focus. In such a situation, you may need to set clearer boundaries so you can work more effectively.
  • Was there a pre-defined process in place, and did you follow it? You might have done this task a million times before. But, for whatever reason, maybe you skipped a step this time. Why? You might need to follow your checklist more closely.
  • Did you have the necessary tools to complete the job? In some cases, it’s on you to ask for extra support. You might have needed more training before editing a video for your media company, which can be hard to admit. But if your superiors are unwilling to help you, it’s a sign that you might be in a toxic workplace.
  • Was there something in your personal life that affected you emotionally? If so, cut yourself some slack. A death in the family will distract you from your work. You can trust that this error won’t happen again under different circumstances.

These questions will help you identify what went wrong. Then you can make a game plan to prevent it from happening again.

I keep messing up at work. Should I quit?

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There are plenty of reasons to quit and start your next job search, but mistakes shouldn’t be, especially if you love your work. A toxic work environment or work that doesn’t let you fulfill your purpose are reasons to leave, but low confidence from making some mistakes. 

If you’re reading this, you probably want to be better. And we have faith that you can be. Apathy is the enemy of improvement, so you’re already making the right moves toward reducing your mistakes. 

Your challenge now is zeroing in on what you’re doing wrong. Hopefully, now that you know what to do when you mess up at work, you’ll grow into a star worker.

BetterUp is here to help you maximize your potential. With our coaches, you can learn to identify your shortcomings, overcome them, and take the next step in your career path.

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Published September 23, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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