We all make mistakes. It’s inevitable.
But owning up to a blunder at work isn’t always easy.
“I think it’s hard because to admit that you’re wrong is not something that’s comfortable for most people, especially in a situation like work where the stakes can be really high,” says workplace expert Alexandra Levit, author of They Don’t Teach Corporate in College. “Your first instinct is to protect yourself against negative consequences.”
Following a gut reaction to sweep a mistake under the rug or deflect blame won’t serve you well in the workplace. Instead, consider these expert-backed tips the next time you drop the ball at work.
1. Accept Responsibility ASAP
This one carries a lot of weight.
“Any mistake you make, you want to own up to it first, and you want to do it pretty quickly because festering wounds only get worse,” says organizational psychologist Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD. “Even if you are only responsible for 1 percent of what happened, you have an obligation to take care of that 1 percent before you start pointing the finger at anybody else.”
There’s science to back it up. Researchers from Ohio State University say that acknowledgment of responsibility is the most important element of an effective apology. Not surprisingly, committing to undoing the damage and fixing what went wrong comes in at a close second.
2. Understand the Ramifications of Your Mistake
Some mistakes cause a ripple effect that impacts your coworkers, clients, or others. Part of owning your mistake is backing up and taking a 360-degree view of the fallout.
“In a lot of organizations, your work is a cog in a larger system,” Woodward says. “If it creates more pain for someone else, you need to understand the impact of your mistake and address all the folks who were impacted.”
Did your slip-up result in a missed deadline, lost revenue, or someone else having to work extra hours? Part of business maturity, according to Woodward, is understanding a mistake’s ramifications and directly apologizing to anyone who was affected.
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3. Make a Plan to Prevent It From Happening Again
Unless it’s a one-off mistake that’s unlikely to reoccur, part of making it right is creating systems to prevent it from repeating itself. Woodward says this involves reverse-engineering your mistake and pinpointing exactly where things went wrong. From there, communicate to the affected parties what you’ve put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. At the end of the day, people don’t want assurances — they want a plan.
Asking mentors for guidance may be part of the process, according to Levit. Did the mistake happen because you were too proud to admit that you didn’t fully understand a work task?
“If you face something that’s out of your comfort zone or your skill set, you can ask for assistance the next time instead of just trying to go it alone,” Levit says. “If someone is giving you instructions, clarify things right then and there instead of nodding and smiling and then realizing later you have no idea what you’re doing.”
4. Get Ahead of the Gossip
Own your own story and take control of the narrative before word gets out that something went sideways.
“In the absence of information, people write their own stories and come up with their own versions of facts, so that’s why it’s important to be in front of the story and not behind it,” Woodward says.
The last thing you want is to be the subject of office gossip, especially considering how easy it is for things to get lost in translation once people start playing telephone. Transparency paired with a sincere apology is the way to go. Experts also recommend asking trusted colleagues for their perspectives. Do they have any advice for how you can bounce back from your mistake?
5. See Your Mistake as a Teachable Moment
It’s more than possible to learn something valuable from your mistake. Woodward calls this “failing forward.”
“Many entrepreneurs have a strong belief in failure as an opportunity,” he explains. “Failing forward is making the mistake, stopping, understanding what happened, and then making a fundamental change to how you operate so that it doesn’t happen again.”
In other words, quiet your ego and take a good look inward to discover the lessons you can take away from the experience in order to continue growing. The upside is that trial and error does appear to help us learn better.
Nobody likes to be wrong, especially in full view of the boss, but setting things right can help you earn the kind of reputation that leads to a successful, profitable career.
“It’s human nature to be defensive or deflect blame, but what you really need to think about is the long game, which is how you want your reputation to be perceived at work,” Levit says. “Isn’t it better to be known as someone who’s honest, assertive, and takes ownership over their own behavior?”
Marianne Hayes is a longtime freelance writer and content marketing specialist.