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Making Mistakes At Work? Here’s How to Handle It

Learn how to get back on your feet after a mistake by following these tips. Plus, learn how to overcome the fear of making mistakes at work.

By Fellow.app  •   June 1, 2022  •   8 min read

In life, perfection is impossible, which in turn makes errors inevitable. You could be one of the best team members at your company, but you’re bound to make at least one mistake over your long career. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone everywhere winds up making mistakes at work eventually, and then, most people get up and keep going. So while moving past these setbacks might seem impossible in the moment, below are a few tips to show you how it’s done.  

You made a mistake – what now?

If you’re like most people, you might freeze after realizing you’ve made a big mistake. Your thoughts might race to every worst-case scenario before calming down enough to find actual solutions. You can stop that initial panic in its tracks by putting together some action plans rather than worrying about potential consequences. Below are a few ways to get started.

1Don’t let things escalate

That initial panic after making a mistake is understandable, but it’s also how you lose time you could’ve spent getting in front of the issue. You could use that time to handle the problem sooner than later, before it gets worse. And sure, not every problem will spiral out of your control, but that becomes more likely the longer you ignore it. A good course of action to prevent things from escalating like this is to acknowledge the mistake outright.

Proactively recognizing and addressing your errors means your team doesn’t have to sit with the anxiety of bringing them to your attention. (And seriously – telling someone that they’ve done something wrong is rarely easy.) You also open the door to valuable feedback and brainstorming that can help you solve the current problem and avoid it in the future. You’ll foster a more collaborative environment and make yourself measurably better at your job. 

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2Don’t linger on a worst-case scenario

It’s easy to get trapped in the panic of realizing your mistakes. Maybe your brain, against all your wishes, conjures up a series of worst-case scenarios. It doesn’t end there: Imagining worst-case scenarios often causes more stress which, in turn, can make you panic even more. This feedback loop can cause you to make even more errors in the future – it makes a bad situation even worse.

All that said, it’s still your brain, and you can get things back under control. One of the best ways to do so is to confront the worst-case scenario right away and accept that it’s not a certainty. For example, while your mistake could cost you your job, it probably won’t. That’s unlikely because it costs a lot of money to hire and train a new employee. You’re probably safe unless you really messed up big-time or this isn’t your first rodeo with this sort of mistake.

3Apologize if you need to

Assuming your organization isn’t just you, any mistake made on the job can affect the whole team. If that’s the case, you should recognize your mistake and apologize for it as soon as possible. Doing so keeps you humble and shows that you’re willing to improve so you can avoid repeating the error in the future.

By contrast, not taking responsibility for your actions can build gradual resentment toward you. Of course, you don’t need to verbally tear yourself down to make amends. Instead, a small admittance of fault can keep everyone happy to work together after all that team bonding.

4Personalize your apology

When you apologize to someone for your mistakes, sincerity is key. Your apology doesn’t need to be long or self-deprecating – you can be brief and still mean it. Part of that sincerity can be giving a more individualized apology, though it doesn’t need to be extravagant. For example, simply saying the other person’s name in your apology often gets your point across. A sentence or two about how your mistake affected this person’s work – and why you feel bad about that – couldn’t hurt either.

5Accept your team’s feedback

Of course, admitting to a mistake and apologizing is crucial for keeping employees engaged, but it’s also about your own improvement. Asking for constructive criticism isn’t easy, but when you make a mistake, your colleagues might have great tips on how to avoid it next time. With good communication and problem-solving skills, it’s entirely possible to turn mistakes into long-term success. 

6Make a clear effort to improve

Getting back on track after a mistake is about more than saying you’ll improve. It’s also about bettering your performance through definitive action. After all, people tend to remember things that go wrong more clearly than things that go right. Your mistakes, regardless of how big or small they are, might stick out more in your team’s minds.

If an error of yours lingers in your team’s memories long enough, your colleagues may come to define you by that one moment. One of the best ways to shift that perspective is to keep working to avoid the same mistake in the future. 

It can be challenging to change your habits even after they lead to errors. That said, consistent feedback can both measure your progress and motivate you to continue improving. On that front, Fellow offers highly valuable feedback tools that make it easy to gather your team members’ thoughts.

How to overcome the fear of making mistakes at work

Moving forward after making a mistake is one thing. Overcoming your fear of making mistakes again is another thing entirely. And real talk – even high-level executives face this fear. For some people, having more responsibilities on their plate means more fear of making mistakes. But with the below techniques, it’s possible to overcome that fear.

1Take a moment to process

Our thoughts tend to race when we’re upset. The mind is a tricky thing, and – if you’ve learned one thing here already, it’s probably this – it loves to focus on overblown worst-case scenarios. These scenarios can lead to some serious stress. You can more effectively process these sudden negative emotions by simply taking a moment to organize your thoughts. Whether you take deep breaths, talk to a friend, or take a long walk, stepping away from the problem can help it seem smaller.

2Learn from it

If there’s one silver lining about mistakes, it’s that they can teach you to never fail in the same way again. Mistakes can be frustrating and embarrassing, but figuring out how you made them can help you never do it again. This reflection can shed light on the mindsets that led to those actions. You can leave those at the door the next time you come into work.

Additionally, if your error affected other people, opening the floor to their feedback can show you things about yourself you might not have known. Going through that whole process can make you better at your work than you were before.

3Look at the mistake in a broader context

Many mistakes can seem direr in the moment, so their consequences can seem like the end of the road for you. However, the error is often way more serious in our heads than in reality. Try looking at the error in the context of all your organization’s operations. You might find that your mistake isn’t that damaging – sure, it’s not great, but it’s not gonna sink the ship – and can be quickly resolved.

4Be timely with your apologies

Acknowledging that you made a mistake can seem frightening, but it can actually be liberating. The longer you let the idea of apologizing sit without doing it, the more likely it is to be scary instead of freeing. A quick but sincere apology to anyone affected can help you course-correct and restore any trust you’ve broken. An honest effort to improve and avoid mistakes in the future goes a long way. 

5Take note of your response

Everyone responds differently to making a mistake, and some responses are more productive than others. The ideal reaction is to get in front of the problem before it escalates into something bigger. However, it’s common for people to freeze or panic when they realize that there’s a problem. You never really know which reaction you’ll have until you mess up, but afterward, think about that. What can you do differently next time? Jot it down, then work toward reacting that way the next time you make a mistake. 

6Talk about it 

It can be easier to stop making the same mistake time and again if you understand the mistake’s root cause. Talking to someone about your anxieties can help you shed some of that unhelpful stress and give you strategies on how to deal with it. You could talk to a friend just to vent, or you could go to a professional. Either way, just putting it out there is often the starting point to making a change.

7Take care of yourself

You’re more likely to make mistakes if you’re not sleeping or eating well. Sure, you can’t sleep on the job, and there’s a reason lunch is a break, not a part of work. But that doesn’t mean they don’t impact your work. And looking at how they do affect your work can help you get over your fear of mistakes.

Think about it: Sleep and food are the bedrock of our daily routines. They help us function properly throughout the day. Without properly taking care of yourself, you could become tired, unfocused, stressed, and much more likely to make a mistake on your daily tasks. So don’t skip meals to power through work or stay up late on work nights to do more. Rest up, eat up, and succeed.

Parting advice

If you take one thing away from this guide, it should be that making a mistake usually isn’t the end of the world. While it can be difficult to see mistakes as positive experiences, they can absolutely lead to personal and professional growth. The best thing you can do when you find you’ve made an error is to breathe and take responsibility. And then, you can make a plan to get back on track.

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