How to bounce back after a big mistake at work

May 21, 2024

6 mins

How to bounce back after a big mistake at work
Natalia Barszcz

Freelance journalist and writer

Making a mistake at work can feel embarrassing and uncomfortable. Especially because our jobs are crucial to us, not only for personal fulfillment but also because we depend on them. The truth is, everyone makes mistakes — in fact, they are an essential part of our personal and professional growth. To help navigate the awkward time after making a mistake at work, we’re chatting with career coach and content creator Emily Rezkalla to see what she has to say on the matter.

Normalizing mistakes

No one likes to make mistakes, but the truth is… aiming for perfection at all times is unrealistic. We all slip up from time to time and you’re bound to make an error at some point in your career, and that’s perfectly okay. In fact, consider that two in three employees openly admit they’ve made mistakes at work (especially in the afternoon) and one in five admit they have already missed a meeting or a deadline at least once. Mistakes are a shared experience among workers - it’s one of the many things we have in common. Just remember that messing up isn’t the end of the world, it’s a valuable opportunity for learning, growth, and continuous improvement.

What to do first

Knowing how to handle a big mistake as soon as it happens is crucial, as it can easily prevent any further escalation and help maintain your professional integrity. Here are some key actionable steps to right your wrong.

1. Own your mistake

“For every action and deliverable you are responsible for, you must also own any mistakes that occur,” says Emily Rezkalla. Acknowledge your role in the error and take responsibility without shifting blame. This step is critical in maintaining trust and respect within your team.

2. Find a proactive solution

Before you inform anyone else about the mistake, take the initiative to think of a solution. “This approach shows that you are not only responsible but also proactive - rather than just reactive.” Demonstrating that you are part of the solution, not just the problem, can significantly affect how the mistake is perceived by others.

3. Be communicative

Communicate the mistake to your manager along with your proposed solution and let the urgency of the error indicate how quickly you need to do it. “I would not apologize over a message but wait until a meeting or video conference to explain further if they need more context,” urges Rezkalla. “Mistakes happen, and apologizing over email or chat isn’t going to solve anything.”

4. Resolve, then reconcile

Make it clear to your superiors that you are committed to learning from this error to avoid repeating it in the future. “Don’t promise you won’t make a mistake again - rather that you are accountable to the mistake you made and you strive to learn from it to improve your performance.”

These steps emphasize a mature and constructive approach to handling mistakes at work. By owning your actions, seeking solutions, communicating effectively, and committing to continuous improvement, you can turn a potentially negative situation into a showcase of your resilience and dedication to your role.

Understand your mistake

After correcting your mistake, leveraging the experience for personal and professional growth is crucial. To do this effectively, engage in reflective practice by asking yourself intentional questions about the incident. “Make sure you keep your answers somewhere you’ll be able to access in the future, whether it’s [your] notes, excel, or [an] email to yourself,” says Rezkalla.

Some of the questions she recommends asking yourself are:

  • Why did I make this mistake?
  • Was it because I was tired that day, and it was an oversight?
  • Was it a new situation or task I hadn’t done before and I needed more training?
  • Was there a miscommunication between myself and another colleague?
  • What have I learned about myself, my role, and my environment through this mistake?

“Growth comes from finding out why and how those mistakes happened so that you can avoid them in the future. Asking the right questions is just as valuable as finding the right answers in this case.”

Manage your emotions

Making a mistake at work can trigger an array of negative emotions - disappointment, fear about your job security, stress over colleagues’ perceptions, guilt, and self-doubt. They all feel valid, intense, and overwhelming in the moment. So, how can we face and control negative emotions? “A good way to cope with feelings after making a mistake at work is to quantify how stressful the situation is on a scale of 1-10,” explains Rezkalla. “This puts into perspective how capable you are as a professional and how intense the situation is.”

She suggests that if a situation is a 7 or higher, you should seek out external support. “It’s extremely important to have someone within your team you can lean on in times a mistake is made - not to complain, but to debrief and bounce ideas on how to reconcile the situation.” Going through this on your own can be difficult - but sharing it with someone who knows you well will provide a clear, balanced perspective and prevent you from reacting impulsively based on your emotions.

Get your confidence back

Making a mistake at work can be a significant blow to our self-confidence. This is a completely normal reaction, but you have to remember that a single error does not define who you are or determine your professional or personal worth. Rezkalla offers a helpful analogy to put mistakes into perspective: “Imagine you write a whole well-argued essay and there’s one bad sentence in the middle of it. Does this make it a bad essay now? No. It just shows it was written by a human. It’s rare to find a professionally written essay or even a book without any mistakes.”

“We are more than one moment in our careers and what’s more defining is how we move forward as professionals after that mistake,” she continues. Yes, you are capable of making errors, but you are also capable of making excellent decisions and achieving success, which happens more frequently than not. You just need to be reminded of what you’re capable of.

One effective way to regain confidence is to reflect on your achievements. “Looking back on your wins will help remind you what you’ve already achieved - every time someone says something good about your work or every time you hit a goal you set yourself,” explains Rezkalla. “It sort of feels like rereading birthday cards on a bad day - it brings you back to reality in the present moment.”

Having a support system at work is equally crucial. “Confidence and resilience come from both inside and outside.” Seek support from those you trust in your personal life, but make sure you also have a support system at work. “There’s nothing worse than making a mistake and not having anyone but friends and family to tell,” says Rezkalla. “Of course, their support is always great - but a lot of the time they don’t understand the inner workings of your job or your ‘professional version’ of yourself and the dynamics of your team.”

Rebuild trust

Losing your confidence after a mistake at work is one challenge, but losing the trust of your colleagues and employers can be even more significant. “Without trust in the workplace, it’s difficult to feel confident doing your job and working with those on your team,” explains Rezkalla. To rebuild that trust, it’s essential to communicate your accountability and show empathy to colleagues who might have been affected by your mistake. How can you do that? By being extra diligent and accountable going forward.

Communication also plays a pivotal role in restoring trust, particularly if your mistake impacts others’ work. Practicing overcommunication can be beneficial, i.e. not just sharing necessary information but also ensuring clarity and openness in all interactions. “Because regaining trust means meeting your colleagues more than halfway.”

Learn from your mistakes

It’s okay to make mistakes, it proves that we’re human, and the best thing we can do is learn from them. “Reflecting on your actions through a past, present, and future lens—considering who you were before, during, and after the mistake—can provide valuable insights into personal growth and how to prevent similar errors in the future,” explains Rezkalla.

Who knows - maybe this experience can ultimately benefit your career. “Employers don’t just want to see how you handled overcoming a mistake, but also how you and your perspective have changed going forward. They look for evidence of growth and self-awareness.” This is also how you build resilience and adaptability - two valuable transferable skills. “Being able to articulate your perspective in the past (before the mistake), present (when the mistake was made), and in the future (post-mistake), is the best way to demonstrate your resilience and adaptability to employers.”

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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