The simple thing you must do when you make a mistake at work

We probably have something in common. Have you ever made a mistake at work? Me too!

Here are a few mistakes I made, well at least those I will admit publicly!

  • Sent out an email with a mismatch between the calendar date and day of the week
  • Failed to update one of my stakeholders after I completed a project (therefore, they thought the work was incomplete)
  • Moved forward with a decision without getting buy-in from others (I move fast and sometimes go with my gut, yikes!)
  • Copied (CC’d) someone on an email I didn’t want them to see (this is a political nightmare!)
  • Didn’t practice my speaking notes before making a significant presentation because I was working on the content at the last minute (imagine a receiver fumbling a pass with 20 seconds left in the game

The reality is, at some point in your career, you will make a mistake.

Further, early in your career, the learning curve is steep, and you will probably make more mistakes.

Worse yet, when you’re starting your career, you feel judged and, let’s be truthful: it’s not uncommon to feel insecure.

Insecure + New Career + Mistake = STRESS!!!!

It’s understandable, but trust me, you will be okay.

Here’s some practical advice about how I managed what can be an awkward, but real moment early in my career.

I admitted that I made a mistake.

Often when people make a mistake at work, they try to cover it up. That’s when things get messy. If you decide to cover up your mistake, things will NOT be okay.

If I made a mistake at work, I would simply say, “Here’s a mistake I made…” More importantly, I tried to share my mistake within 12-24 hours.

By admitting the error, I got to “own” it, and describe what happened. If someone else discusses MY mistake, the manager (and whomever else they tell) hears their version of the story. Not good. Moreover, why give someone else power over a situation that can enable you to grow and learn?

Further, I selected my audience – that is, “I decided” (channeling Solange’s song), who needed to know I made a mistake. In general, I selected my manager, but there were times I reached out to other stakeholders that were directly impacted.

As an aside, it’s not only early-career employees; in fact, leaders are encouraged to admit their mistakes. Why? Because research suggests that leaders (seemingly those with way more experience) who acknowledge mistakes are respected and perceived to act with integrity in the workplace.

I figured out a solution.

Any time I initiated a conversation about a mistake, I would finish with a strong close.

Specifically, I had more than one idea to resolve the situation.

For instance, if I sent a companywide communication with the wrong date, I discussed a plan for sharing the right information. Even if my stakeholder ultimately had a different (sometimes better) solution, I wanted to demonstrate that I thought about how to deal with it.

I kept track of my mistakes

Typically, when people make a mistake, they are likely to make the same mistake again; unless it’s blatant and results in a write-up at work.

Further, I noticed that I didn’t make the same mistake immediately, but eventually, the same error would occur. You won’t be able to quantify this unless you track your mistakes.

Here’s an example of what I discovered when I started tracking my mistakes. I sent an email and misspelled one person’s name at least five times over six months.

Therefore, starting today, jot down the last 1-5 mistakes you made at work in the previous 3-6 months. Once you do this, determine if you see a trend.

Notably, writing down your mistakes is not about self-loathing. Instead, you’re trying to identify a pattern of behavior that you will change.

I asked someone else to review my work

Many times, we mess up because we’re executing quickly or multi-tasking. As a result, plan to have someone else take a look at your work, especially if you are going to share it with many people.

For example, if you are going to share one of the following documents, ask someone else to review it:

  •  Presentation
  • Company Announcement
  • Policy changes
  • Leadership updates
  • New process
  • Customer email
  • Details about a new product launch
  • Marketing plan

And by someone, I don’t mean your manager. Instead, I usually reached out to a work buddy, the person sitting next to me, or a remote colleague whom I trusted.

I got out of my head.

Just because you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean you are incapable. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you have a manager that blames, rather than supports you when you make an error, look for a new job.

When I made a mistake, I allowed myself to think (and sometimes talk about it) for the next 24 hours, and then I let it go. It's effortless to spend time engaging in the blame game; meanwhile, other things are going on at work, and you will fall behind.

The final lesson is cliché, but probably the most important one.

I figured out what I learned.

The whole point of making a mistake is to figure out what you’ve learned and then use it to improve your performance. Point. Blank. Period.

I would often ask myself, “What have I learned from this experience?”

It felt like the right question, as I read Oprah Winfrey does something similar. And if there is a pattern to follow, you can’t go wrong with Oprah!

In closing, if you ask yourself the same question, any experience at work, mistakes included, can help you develop. Plus, asking what you learned enables you to bring closure and avoid the blame game.