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You Made a Big Mistake at Work. What Should You Do? (HBR)

Making a mistake at work doesn’t have to be career limiting. As awful as it might feel in the moment, we can take steps to regain trust, minimize damage, and mend the situation.

(Originally published in Harvard Business Review. Image: HBR Staff/Getty Images/Yijing Liu)


Everyone makes mistakes at work. Whether it’s losing your cool in a meeting or forgetting that report you were supposed to send at 3 pm, there are times when we inevitably mess up or fail. These bumps in the road are a normal part of work, but if you manage them poorly, they can reduce your level of trustworthiness and damage your reputation.


As we start heading back into the office and figuring out what our “new normal” will be, the likelihood of miscommunications and mistakes is high. With everything in a state of flux, you are almost guaranteed to encounter moments of misalignment. (Can you ignore an instant message and focus on your work? Can you take a team meeting from your desk? Can you go for a walk in the middle of the day?)


For remote hires coming into the office for the first time, this transition may feel particularly intimidating. It is yet another unprecedented event, rife with stress and uncertainty. If that stress becomes too overwhelming, it can reduce your work performance and patience, lead to poor decision-making, and trigger reactive or domineering behaviors.


Don’t let these errors limit your career growth. The next time you mess up, follow the strategies below to help you regain trust, minimize damage, and mend the situation.


Be proactive

Once you are aware of the mistake you have made, try to get in front of the situation before it spirals. Being proactive about addressing whatever took place demonstrates your awareness of the problem and relieves others from the potential discomfort of bringing it to your attention.


Take my former client Sabina, a finance executive, who began to hear whispers that people on her team found her condescending and overly controlling of their work. Rather than dismissing the comments and letting the situation escalate, she immediately set up 1:1’s with each team member to solicit their feedback and learn more. She then called a meeting to thank her team members for their feedback, express her remorse, and share her plan for remedying the situation.


By being proactive, Sabina was able to gain critical feedback for her improvement as a leader and nip her team’s growing dissatisfaction before it escalated further. Even if you are not in a leadership position, you can make an effort to reach out to those impacted by your actions, hear them out, and share a plan for improvement moving forward.


Offer an apology

Offer a genuine and humble apology, acknowledging your error and the harm you caused to the other person, team, or the business. Don’t be defensive or make your apology about yourself. What other people care about is your impact, not your intent.


For instance, suppose a colleague tells you that they were offended by a comment you made. Don’t respond by saying, “Well, I would never offend anyone on purpose!” or “I am sorry if you feel that way.”


Using the word “if” in your apology implies the other person is being irrational or overly sensitive. It does not show any ownership of your wrongdoing. Instead, fully own your mistake. Instead say, “I appreciate you telling me that. I am sorry that what I said was offensive and hurtful to you. I’ll be more mindful.”


Make amends with those impacted

While it is an act of integrity and accountability to admit and apologize for your error, you will only rebuild trust if you correct the behavior or issue. Share what you learned, how it’s going to be different, and commit to doing better. (“I’m sorry. I thought it was okay to attend the call virtually from my desk. I didn’t realize everyone was expected to be in the conference room. I’ll be there for the next meeting.”)


You may need to work hard to change your behavior and correct the situation. But without the correction, any apology is worthless, and people will only grow more cynical.


Turning back to the example of Sabina, she improved her team leadership by deliberately practicing new communication and delegation approaches. Rather than proactively explaining things and providing solutions when trying to help her team members solve problems (two habits her direct reports found condescending), she committed to asking questions.


If she wasn’t sure that her reports were following what she was talking about, she would ask, “Are you familiar with this?” before explaining further. And instead of doling out unsolicited advice, she would ask: “How can I help?” Further, she followed up monthly with each of her direct reports to solicit their ongoing feedback in these areas.


Show your boss that you are making progress

Unfortunately, the negatives outweigh the positives in our minds, meaning people remember your faults more than your strengths. This negativity bias means it’s essential to take action and not shrink back after making a mistake. Find ways to position yourself in front of people and demonstrate progress on the issue to rebuild trust and shift perceptions.


For example, Jared, an employee at a technology company who I work with, learned in his annual review that he was failing to scale his organization the way his manager expected. His boss saw him as being in the weeds and creating churn versus enabling his teams to work more efficiently.

To improve his performance and overcome this perception, Jared created and mapped out a detailed plan, including steps and deadlines and he planned to reach in order to accomplish his goals. Importantly, he updated his boss bi-weekly to give her visibility into his progress and counter her potential confirmation bias.


It takes time to rebuild trust and reset perceptions, so be patient. Maintain hope and persist in your efforts over time, and you will prevail. As one CEO I interviewed on the topic of leadership brand shared, “I love people who have had a bump in the road, who have failed and learned. They now have a tolerance for failure, and it’s strengthened their character.”

Have compassion

When we have a setback at work, it can be embarrassing, and we can become excessively self-critical. Berating ourselves for something in the past, though, is not helpful. We can learn much from our mistakes and use them to catalyze our development, so long as we don’t focus our energy on criticizing ourselves.


When you unintentionally err, treat yourself as you would a friend in a similar situation. Among its many proven benefits, practicing self-compassion will support you in regaining clarity and confidence, and moving forward productively from a setback. To ensure you make your mistake a valuable learning experience, also ask yourself these two questions:

  • How can I prevent this from happening again in the future?

  • What’s one lesson I can extract from this experience?

Similarly, show compassion for others when they stumble. Likely, they’re feeling embarrassed and already rebuking themselves enough for their error. Don’t add to the negative emotions they already feel. This is especially true when it comes to remote hires, whose onboarding was likely compromised by the circumstances.


The good news is that self-compassion and compassion for others are connected. When you practice one, you naturally boost the other and contribute to an upward cycle of compassion at work, the order of the day if there ever was one.


Remember that mistakes and setbacks are normal, and failure offers us an opportunity to learn. If you mess up at work, don’t duck, cover, and self-flagellate. Instead, use the strategies above to remedy the situation, rebuild trust, and repair your reputation.

 

With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina