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12 Ways to Bounce Back After Making a Dumb Mistake at Work

Simi February 15, 2018

Mistakes are unavoidable but none of us like making them. The cost is sometimes high and it’s uncomfortable to find out you’ve done something wrong. But it’s perfectly natural to make mistakes when you are experimenting and learning new things. You can either make the same mistake again or you use it as an opportunity to learn. The way you handle the mistakes you make matters.

It’s not your mistakes that define you or your career. It is how you handle them. You can either dwell endlessly on your mistakes and judge yourself harshly, or you can cover them up and pretend they didn’t happen. Neither of these approaches is helpful in the end. In fact, it is always best to own up to a mistake and learn from it.

Mistakes vary in degree and type. Some can be tougher to recover from than others. A simple mistake like forgetting to attach a document to an email is easy to remedy. However, a mistake that damages your employer’s earnings, public image or credibility is costlier and harder to recover from, but some of life’s best lessons are learned from the worst mistakes.

You can fail, even in a dramatic way, and still survive and move past it. It is possible to rectify even serious mistakes by controlling the damage and using the lessons learned to improve and grow. Here are some ways to bounce back after making a serious mistake at work when all you want to do is hide away.

1. Admit Your Mistake

Once you discover you have made a mistake, your first reaction may be to cover it up or hide it because you feel embarrassed. But trying to cover it up rarely works. When your boss finds out from someone else and not from you, it makes the situation much worse. When you own up to what you have done, you are in control of the message. As hard as it may be, you need to take a deep breath, gather your courage and talk to your boss about what has happened.

Don’t try to offer justifications for what you did or get defensive about what happened. Don’t try to shift the blame onto others and even if it was a group mistake, acknowledge your role. Trying to blame other people negatively affects the image others have of you and is unprofessional. You’ll do more damage to relationships, trust and credibility by your actions after a mistake than by the mistake itself.

When you are prepared to take responsibility and admit your mistake, it can win you the respect of your colleagues. They will appreciate the courage it took reveal your mistake. They are more likely to trust you and regard you as an upstanding, honest person. You will also feel less stress and tension once you have admitted to your mistake.

If you can explain in a non-defensive way to colleagues that you have made a mistake and why it happened, they will be more able to understand. They will also be more likely to support you in your attempts to correct it.

2. Don’t Judge Yourself

It’s natural to feel embarrassed, frustrated and upset when you make a mistake. But dwelling on your mistake is unhelpful. If you keep beating yourself up and feeling miserable, people are more likely to judge you for that than for the mistake itself. They want to see how you can solve the problem and learn from your mistake.

Learning from a mistake must never be confused with dwelling on it. If you pity yourself and get involved in endless recriminations, you don’t help yourself or the situation. Thinking of yourself as stupid or worthless keeps you stuck and prevents you from looking for solutions. When you judge yourself, you can’t look at yourself objectively.

Judging makes it so you can’t identify what is holding you back as a person. Self-critiquing can be helpful and doubting your abilities is normal. But when you constantly think of yourself as worthless because of a mistake, you need to address it. Self-loathing can have a serious effect on your state of mind and your relationships.

So make a conscious effort to avoid judging yourself for not performing the way you think you should. Also, perfectionists are especially liable to judge themselves and need to keep this in mind. Always remember, you are capable, and your mistakes don’t diminish your value. Mistakes are usually not as bad as they seem. But even when they are, you need to realize they offer you an opportunity to become stronger.

Also, they can show you how you need to improve. Remember that even the brightest and the best make mistakes. Don’t judge yourself for the ones you have made, but rather learn from them and move on in your life.

3. Tell Affected Parties and Apologize

It is difficult to bounce back from a mistake without going to those who have been affected and owning it. There is no need to verbally flog yourself, but you need to acknowledge your mistake without offering any justifications or excuses. An apology is not a sign of weakness, but the strength to admit failure.

Sometimes people want to hear you say you’re sorry as a way of acknowledging that you have hurt them, not necessarily to allocate blame. When a mistake you have made costs others in some way, you should take the time to apologize. Acknowledging the effect your mistake has had will show you understand what you have put them through.

An apology has the power to reverse the damage you have done to a relationship. It can create a situation where colleagues are more open to forgiveness and your solution to the issue. Ideally, you already have a solution when you communicate and apologize. But it may not always be possible, depending on the complexity of the situation.

So rather than waiting until you have a solution, mention that you’re working on a solution and give them a deadline when you will communicate the next steps you will take. You can’t just make an apology, shrug your shoulders and move on. You need to reassure colleagues that it won’t happen again.

Also, you should show them the safeguards you plan to put in place to ensure this. Once you have apologized, offered a solution and implemented changes, it’s time to move forward with a clear conscience. However, apologizing repeatedly can be a sign of weakness and it affects your credibility.

4. Keep the Situation in Perspective

Most people tend to overreact when they have made a mistake. Maintaining perspective is not easy when you realize what you have done. Your emotional response to your mistake may end up being bigger than the mistake itself. But making a mistake at work, even a big one, is highly unlikely to be a matter of life or death, unless you’re a pilot or a surgeon.

Showing up late for a presentation, double-booking an important meeting or giving the wrong figures in a report may seem to be big mistakes in your mind. In fact, they all have solutions, and focusing on these solutions can help bring perspective. When you focus on how to address the issue, it makes you feel less overwhelmed and more in control.

In many companies, there is a fear of failure. But if a mistake or failure is not life-threatening, view it as a learning experience and another step in your journey. When you are further along the path, you may look back at the mistake in a different way. One of the best ways to lose perspective is to start feeling sorry for yourself or seeing your mistake as being a result of a flaw in your character.

When you put a mistake into perspective, you can see it for what it is: a temporary event. If you make it personal, you start seeing yourself as a failure. Personalizing your mistake can wreak havoc on your confidence. If the Wright brothers took their mistakes personally, they would never have been able to work for years on failed prototypes before making a plane that could fly.

5. Take Stock and Learn

Before you can control the damage, you must take stock of the situation. The best way to look at your mistake is to suspend feelings of blame, frustration, embarrassment, regret or anger. Reflect on why you made the mistake. Were you working on a deadline and missed some important details because of the rush?

Perhaps you trying to multi-task beyond your ability. Or maybe you overtired because you were working long hours. Did you decide hastily or out of fear? Looking at the mental and emotional state leading up to your mistake can be revealing. You need to understand why the mistake occurred if you hope to avoid it in the future.

You need to be patient when looking at a complex mistake to get to the root of what happened. There’s nothing worse than trying to fix something when you don’t understand it. You could even make things worse. The more complex the mistake, the further back in time you need to go to find out what caused it and the lessons you can learn from it.

Some questions to ask yourself is whether many small mistakes led to a larger one or if you made any wrong assumptions. Were there crossed wires somewhere or could you have considered an alternative? And most importantly, what changes can you make to prevent the mistake from happening again?

It may help to document the mistake, the steps to take to resolve it and the measures to take to prevent it from happening again. If you can learn from your current mistake, you have made big progress and will keep learning from your mistakes. No matter what happens tomorrow, you will be able to take stock and get value out of every mistake you make.

6. Ask for Feedback

If you want to learn from your mistakes, it may require some involvement from other people. It could be in the form of advice, further training or just to stay on track. Colleagues are more objective about your failure and can offer you a diverse variety of perspectives. They are likely to have useful advice about your mistake and what they feel you can do to recover from it.

They may even ask questions that help you to see important details you didn’t consider. Admitting you need help and asking for it may need more courage than going it alone. It is common to ask for feedback without wanting it. So before you ask for feedback, make sure you are prepared to accept it.

You will need to listen carefully without becoming defensive. It may be hard to accept feedback but in the long run, it’s harder not to. The best feedback may come from those who were most affected by your mistake, yet they are often the hardest ones to ask. Not only will asking them give you the opportunity to learn the most from the situation, it will help them to see you in a better light than if you swept the problem under the carpet.

Forthright, honest colleagues will usually give you useful, constructive criticism and think highly of you for listening to what they have to say. You might imagine that they will be critical of your failure and judge you. But you may be surprised to find they are more willing to help than you imagined. Getting useful feedback may be the fastest route to improving your performance.

7. Know What to Do Differently Next Time

If you caused the problem, come up with a plan to resolve it. After taking stock of the problem and finding out what caused it, your plan should address what actions must occur to prevent it from happening again. Think about who needs to take these actions and how long they will take. The people involved in the plan will probably include your boss, co-workers and sometimes clients who have been affected by the mistake.

If the mistake was a result of a bad decision, explain to your boss and colleagues exactly how your plan will help to avoid making the same mistake in the future. You need to respond as quickly as possible so that your competence isn’t in question. In a performance-based culture, people view mistakes quite harshly. Companies with a learning culture view mistakes in a different light because they want to offer people the opportunity to grow.

Show that you have changed because of your mistake. This will reassure your boss and colleagues you have learned from it and they can trust you to handle important decisions or tasks in the future. Show them you’re prepared to go the extra mile to improve and that your focus is in the best interests of the company. Be prepared to help colleagues where possible and work longer hours, if necessary.

Most of all, learning from your mistake should help broaden your horizons. It should make you more aware of how many intelligent, capable people have made similar mistakes to yours and have not allowed them to stop them. When you can take mistakes in stride and not judge yourself on the basis of a single failure, you have one of the keys to learn much in life.

8. Get Back Out There

When you’ve made a mistake, especially a visible one that has an impact on those around you, it’s natural to question your ability to perform. But you need to get past those doubts. It may not be easy, but you need to get back out there. Don’t allow your mistake to prevent you from moving forward. Don’t allow it to make you so fearful of making another mistake, you are unable to perform properly.

If you are obsessed with not making a mistake, you are more likely to make another one. You may find that when you make a big mistake, your future small errors look magnified. Perhaps you have always come in five minutes late and no one noticed, but now they do. If you make a small, avoidable error on a presentation, people may question your competence. So make sure that small things don’t erode their trust in your performance.

It can be hard to rebuild people’s trust and confidence in you. Recovering from a mistake takes some perseverance and resilience. Many people have made mistake after mistake and still reach their goals. Others make the same mistake time after time. They end up repeating the same mistake because they haven’t learned from it.

One of the biggest lessons to learn when facing big mistakes is you need to examine your own ability to make changes. Until you make mistakes and then correct them, you don’t know what it requires of you. You need to see your mistakes as part of your journey. So regard them as opportunities to gain more insights, knowledge, and experiences.

9. Turn the Negative Into a Positive

A mistake may have some negative consequences, but you can reframe the way you look at it. When Coca-Cola came up with New Coke in the 1980’s, it was a failure. Coca-Cola admitted its mistake, so when they launched a new campaign about the return of Classic Coke, sales were higher than ever. Reframing the problem may result in some positive changes that may just put you on a new career trajectory.

What a mistake does is make you take another look at the way you do things and can have positive implications. Perhaps there has been a flaw in the system that has allowed a mistake like yours to slip through. In assessing your mistake, you find ways to tighten up the system. If your mistake can lead to positive changes, this is the best way to overcome the negative effects.

Soon everyone will be remarking on the improvement and forget all about your mistake. There are endless stories of famous people who have failed repeatedly before achieving success. For instance, Abraham Lincoln had to go through many failures before becoming president and achieving greatness. Admitting to a mistake, analyzing it and improving are the three steps towards creating success out of any failure.

Mistakes often happen on the road to transformation. After a mistake, you may be more open to feedback. They can redirect you towards more constructive pathways. Progress is always rather messy, so if you can just accept that, you’ll have more chances of using your mistakes to propel you forward.

They may devastate you at the time, but ultimately, they can point you towards the vision you have for your life. So, develop the mindset that your mistakes move you forward when you learn from them and use them to gain new insight.

10. Earn Trust Back with Your Words and Actions

One mistake, even a big one, cannot derail your life permanently unless you allow it to. President Bill Clinton, for instance, was shamed worldwide for his infidelity. Several years later, he received the United Nations Citizen of the World Award. You can fail dramatically and publicly, yet still move past your mistakes.

The best way to earn back people’s trust is by the actions you take after you have made a mistake. Eat humble pie and work hard to make up for your mistake and there won’t be many who won’t forgive and forget. Consistency is important, even in small ways when you are trying to regain trust. Be willing to sacrifice your own needs to benefit others.

If your boss has serious doubts about your competency because of your mistake, it may require some effort to change their mind. It will require humility from you. So, show your boss you are working towards improving your skills. But don’t try to rush it. You may need extra time to do some research if your boss wants your input, rather than giving the first thoughts that come to mind.

Most people want to be able to trust you after you have made a mistake. However, to expect them to do this instantly is unreasonable. They need to see you do the things you said you would do to fix it. You need to remain as transparent as possible and be consistent in your efforts. If you are prepared to make the effort, with some patience and perseverance, you will be able to earn back their trust.

11. Take Better Care of Yourself

When you are sleep-deprived, it will eventually catch up with you in the lack of concentration, poor problem solving and impaired alertness. Some studies have shown that working after not having enough sleep is like working under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Your health has an influence on your work performance.

A lack of exercise, poor nutrition, dehydration and your working conditions may all affect how you do your work. To avoid making mistakes that come from not taking enough care of yourself, be serious about your health. If you start to exercise more, eat correctly and get enough sleep, you will notice less brain fog, more clarity and fewer mistakes.

Stressing yourself out over a mistake doesn’t help your mental state. Your mind can easily exaggerate and distort the possible consequences of a mistake. It may be helpful to imagine the worst possible consequences. In fact, this usually makes you realize that things are not as bad as all that.

After all, it is probably unlikely you will get fired for your mistake. When you face up to what you fear the most, it tends to put your mistake into perspective. You may even feel some relief. So avoid judging yourself, but take a discerning look at what could have contributed towards making the mistake.

Ask yourself some key questions. What reserves were running low? Were you short of sleep, patience or exercise? Think about how you can start taking better care of yourself. A little self-care goes a long way towards helping you avoid mistakes and deal with the ones you make in a positive manner.

12. Use Your Mistake to Teach Others

Mistakes often feel less overwhelming once you have assessed them and discovered how to fix them. Once you’ve moved on, you may even feel that you are able to use your experience to help others. Not only you can benefit from learning from your mistakes, but others can, too.

For example, a team leader in a company developed communication issues with members of his team during a time of layoffs. They felt he was blaming them for what had happened. He went through the steps of admitting his mistake, apologizing and finding ways to improve his communication with them. Eventually, he was able to share with other leaders in the company and speak to them about the positive effects he had achieved.

Mistakes have a way of clarifying what you want out of life. They wake you up and make you focus. When you work on solutions, you examine your goals and get more clarity. This often leads to a desire to impart what you have gained to others. They teach you to tell your truth.

Being honest about your failures gives you opportunities to share with others how you dealt with them. Mistakes have a way of making you take responsibility. When you take responsibility for them and learn, what you learn is valuable to others who may be making similar mistakes.

You can inspire others by the courage you have to make your struggles public. How you have overcome your mistakes can provide powerful lessons for others. They may just decide to live their lives differently through listening to you.