Most employees try their best and really do want to be successful in the workplace. Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan. What if you make a mistake? What should you do? How should you react?
The important thing to remember is that your response to any workplace mistake is about more than damage control, although that is certainly very important. How you recover from a mistake says a lot about your character. However, the other key is putting prevention strategies in place to catch small mistakes before they become large ones.
Here are five common scenarios and their solutions. Chances are, you can probably to relate to some or all of them:
Scenario 1: A Deadline Is Approaching, and You’re Going to Miss It
It’s Tuesday afternoon, you’ve just realized you have an assignment due tomorrow. There is no way to finish the project in time, as you still have at least two days’ worth of work yet to be done.
Don’t despair! There is hope. To minimize conflict and soften the blow with your boss:
- Accept responsibility. Recognize your time mismanagement or the receipt of unanticipated additional assignments. Own up to the situation.
- Brainstorm your implementation plan. How much longer past the deadline do you need? What steps on what timeline will it take to complete the project?
- Notify your manager immediately. Be honest in your justification. Avoid placing blame on anyone else. Immediately and sincerely apologize to your supervisor.
- Lay out potential solutions and request input before you implement.
- Once the project is complete, brainstorm ways to avoid this in the future. Schedule tasks on your calendar, conduct weekly team check-ins, and set phone alarms.
Scenario 2: It Looks Like You’ve Hatched an Escape Plan
You desperately need a bathroom break at the morning meeting — for the third time this week. As you make your exit, you’re unable to avoid the disapproving gaze of your boss. It might be coincidence on your end, but team members and managers may perceive it as avoidance or disengagement.
Here are a few simple tips to both avoid and minimize the effects of this situation:
- Allow plenty of time in advance to use the bathroom and get a coffee before any meetings. If you forget, be smart and discreet.
- Prevention aside, if you must leave, a simple, “Excuse me, I’ll return in a moment,” or “Excuse me, I’ll be right back,” will do.
- Use the back or side room entrance, not the front, to minimize disruption.
- Reenter quietly without your cellphone, or turn it to silent.
- Sit in the back of the room if returning to your original seat will cause a distraction.
Scenario 3: Your Officemate Is Driving You Nuts
Whether you’re dealing with a chatterbox, a nosy colleague, or a challenging personality, working with difficult people is stressful. However, creating an amicable team atmosphere yields a better experience for all. Plus, being able to address and overcome interpersonal conflicts is a key soft skill to have in your arsenal.
A few tips:
- Remain professional and keep your emotions in check.
- Don’t drag other coworkers into the issue or enlist others to take sides. Instead, seek and discuss potential solutions with a spouse, mentor, or trusted friend.
- Get to know your coworker better and try to understand how they work.
- If significant issues arise in the workplace, address them immediately with HR.
Scenario 4: You Make an Honest Mistake
You just finished a report to the team that includes several data points pulled from an internal analysis. To your horror, a colleague whispers in your ear that a key percentage is reversed. The report has been sent out to the whole team, including upper management. What to do?
Keep in mind these key recovery tips:
- Business professionals make mistakes. It can be embarrassing to admit the truth, but confronting mistakes demonstrates your maturity and helps in the long run.
- Accept responsibility; don’t hide your mistake. Don’t blame others for your mistake.
- Apologize and learn from it. Double- and triple-check your work in the future to avoid a repeat.
- Move forward and continue to do good work to build trust with your coworkers and boss.
Scenario 5: You Have an Awkward Wardrobe Malfunction
Whether your clothing accidentally rips or your neckline is too revealing, it is important to maintain a professional workplace appearance. Here are tips to both prevent and recover from a wardrobe malfunction:
- If you’re headed to an interview, research the office wardrobe culture beforehand.
- As a new employee, carefully read the written dress code policy and observe the unwritten code, too.
- Keep a backup jacket, dress, or other clothing in your workspace in case of a coffee spill.
- A scarf is a handy accessory to keep on hand when a little cover up is needed.
- Look in a full-length mirror and ask yourself if your attire is suitable to meet your significant other’s family members.
Office mishaps can be utterly embarrassing, but they don’t have to destroy your career. Instead, they can be opportunities to build character and resilience. Reframe mistakes as learning opportunities and skill-building exercises for your professional growth. And when a colleague makes a mistake, support them in the recovery process as well.
Sharon Schweitzer is a former employment attorney and founder and CEO of Access to Culture.