So You Messed Up At Work. Now What?
Did anyone see that?
Can I just pretend it didn’t happen?
Maybe no one will notice.
It’s more Susie’s fault than mine anyway, she should be the one to take the blame.
It’s one thing to talk about ways to put your best foot forward at work, but what happens when you make a misstep?
No matter how careful you are, you’re going to make some—large and small—mistakes at work. Like it or not, the nature of those mistakes, and what you do about them, will play a huge role in defining your career and your reputation.
They can also provide a powerful opportunity for “silently preaching” the gospel in the marketplace. A few months ago at the 4word leadership retreat, a group of women were discussing what it means to take your faith to work. My friend Tinu pointed out that while she tries to exemplify Christ through her diligence and professionalism, it’s the mistakes she’s made that sometimes offer the best opportunity to show people what her faith is all about.
So, you’re sitting at work going over some reports you’ve just sent out when suddenly you notice that some of your numbers aren’t adding up. Gulp.
Own it. As soon as you can, you need to own up to your mistake. Don’t do so in a way that places blame somewhere else. There may be perfectly legitimate and understandable reasons that you messed up. There may be other people at fault as well. It’s fine (and probably healthy) to recognize those outside influences for yourself, but you don’t need to offer them up to other people unless they ask.
“I made a mistake here,” is so much more powerful than: “There’s a mistake in my report here, I’m not sure whether Susie gave me the right numbers.”
Apologize. You need to go the next step and offer apologies where appropriate. It can be hard to humble yourself in this way, especially in a tough, competitive work environment. But there is real dignity and power in a simple, sincere apology.
I’ve also found that when tensions are running high apologies can go a long way towards defusing the emotions of a situation. We had a situation with 4word a few weeks ago where we had organized a happy hour event for women in the LA area. One young woman showed up to the venue, but couldn’t find the group anywhere. She was understandably frustrated and emailed me about it afterwards. Even though I didn’t know precisely what had gone wrong in the communications between local group leaders and this particular young lady, I knew we owed her an apology: “I am so sorry for our mistake, please forgive us.” From there, frustrations eased, and we were able to move towards a positive solution. We’ve since made some organization-wide changes in the way that we contact people and organize events on a local level.
Fix it. If possible, do what you need to do to fix the immediate problems you’ve caused. You may need to work extra hours to correct a sales report, or take steps to repair a relationship with someone you’ve offended. If you’re not sure how to repair the damage, don’t be afraid to ask: “I’m committed to making this right, what can I do?”
Sometimes, “fixing” the problem requires working on yourself. In one of my very first corporate jobs, I went in sort of assuming that everyone in the workplace had the same goals and the same drive as me. I soon became frustrated with people I perceived as “not committed,” and I took it upon myself to push them to do more. I was accomplishing a lot and experiencing some success, so when it came time for my performance review, I was confident that I was going to hear great things. Instead, my boss told me that my hard-charging attitude and “over the top” expectations were alienating the team. OUCH! It wasn’t easy to hear, but God used my mistake to humble me and show me that I needed to learn to understand and respect other people’s gifts and goals and boundaries. Fixing my mistakes started with my own heart and my attitude.
Learn from it. Do everything you can to keep from making the same mistakes again. This is where it’s valuable to really think critically about the all of the factors at play. Are you not organized enough? Are you not getting enough sleep at night? Did you and Susie have a miscommunication regarding the sales report? Are your expectations skewed? What can you do better?
You won’t always be able to prevent the same kinds of mistakes from happening, but by making positive changes, you show the people around you that you are learning and that you care.
And believe me, people will be watching. Part of the reason that mistakes are so powerful is that they get people’s attention. Coworkers who might not care that you show up on time to meetings will notice and remember how you deal with your mistakes.
* * * * *
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made at work?