Did you really just send that confidential email to the wrong person? Or totally blow it with a major client?

Executive Brief

  • Mistakes are going to happen at work. Here’s how to handle them:
  • Identify it quickly and take action to fix it
  • Acknowledge and apologize
  • Determine the cause and create a preventative solution
  • Don’t overly fixate on the error

  • We all make mistakes. But when they happen at work, how you react can help mitigate the fallout.

    Don’t bury your head

    Don’t cross your fingers and hope that no one catches the mistake. You want to be one who points it out.

    “It’s a better position to be the person in control of delivering the information of the mistake you made,” said Denise Dudley, a behavioral psychologist. “It’s easier to do damage control.”

    When your boss learns about the mistake from you, it shows you are paying attention and taking responsibility.

    “The first version of any event sets the stage for future discussions of the event and also creates the initial impression,” said Marie McIntyre, a career coach in Atlanta and author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.”

    If your boss learns about your mistake from someone else, you are going to have to overcome any opinions they have already formed.

    Remain calm

    You set the tone on how people respond. Emotions can be contagious in the office. If you freak out, it’s likely others will, too.

    “People will take cues from you,” said Dudley. “You want to make sure you are telegraphing a calm, professional manner on how to handle the situation.”

    With that said, you also want to react to the matter seriously to show you aren’t taking the situation lightly.

    Acknowledge it and seek a fix

    Once you’ve identified the mistake, acknowledge it to whomever was affected and work to get it fixed as quickly as possible.

    If you are having a hard time coming up with a solution, don’t be shy about getting others’ input. “Don’t just sit in a room twiddling your thumbs,” said Dudley. It’s fine to tell your boss you are seeking solutions but would like some suggestions.

    Be clear with an apology

    Not every little mistake requires an apology. But when the screw up is big enough, it’s important to say the actual words.

    “When you hear certain words or phrases, that makes it more real or solid,” explained Dudley. “Using the words ‘sorry’ or ‘I apologize’ are important. Don’t use euphemisms. Just say, ‘I made a mistake and I apologize for it.’”

    While you don’t want to beat around the bush when it comes to showing remorse, don’t overdo it. “It’s doesn’t have to be a big groveling or throwing yourself on the sword,” she added.

    It’s also important to explain to your boss that you understand how the mistake was made and what you will do to prevent it from happening again. “Explain what happened and why it happened and here’s what you learned for next time,” advised McIntyre.

    If your error had a snowball effect that caused colleagues to also make mistakes on their work, acknowledge your role to their bosses as well.

    Even if the mistake is not entirely your fault, like another department was late getting you a report that you needed, don’t play the blame game.

    You can explain that it’s not totally your fault without it looking like you are passing the buck, explained McIntyre.

    “Say: I am sorry the report originally came from marketing and I didn’t double check it and I will be sure to next time always check marketing reports,” she said.

    Learn from it

    Learning from mistakes helps us not to repeat them. Take the time to evaluate the circumstances of how it happened.

    Were you distracted? Were you multitasking too much? Did you forget to update your calendar with the new deadline?

    Once you’ve identified the problem, set up a solution to prevent it from happening again, tell your boss to show you are taking the precautions to avoid similar mishaps from reoccurring.

    Give yourself a break

    If you become overly fixated on the mistake, it’s likely you will make another.

    Once you’ve remedied and apologized, give yourself some breathing room to clear your head.

    That can mean going for a walk or talking to a friend for a change of topic. “We have to forgive ourselves, everybody makes mistakes,” said Dudley.