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How to Overcome Mistakes at Work

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

This article was originally published in Insights for Professionals.

We all screw up. Last year, I hit reply-all on an email sending a message intended for one colleague to over 400 managers. The content of the email was relatively benign, though it did reference another party. This lent an air of discussing someone without them being present - not gossip per se, but not great either. The embarrassment was real. I was sure I could feel 400 sets of eyes roll (or wince) as my message arrived and I was convinced they were all talking and laughing at my expense. I immediately called my colleague to apologize. My boss too.

In reality, a few peers teased me, many paid no attention at all, and my boss consoled me with a similar story of her own. It was helpful but I chided myself. To this day, I still have a slight feeling of panic before clicking send.

Making a mistake at work isn’t only rough and sometimes painful, but also inevitable. It’s bound to happen but how we bounce back is the true mark of our leadership and effectiveness.

Own it

Admitting to a mistake is the right first step and it’s likely colleagues will respect you for it. Think about it. How have you viewed someone who covered up a mistake? Was it respect or admiration? No, it was probably some level of disappointment, pity, or maybe even disgust. Now think about someone you have observed who was out of line but later owned their behavior? What did you think of them? You may have felt gratitude, relief and probably empathy.

Some feel an immediate, knee-jerk reaction to cover it up or deny. It’s normal. We all fear being judged by our peers and don’t want to be viewed as incompetent or inexperienced so avoiding admission of mistakes happens. Worse, some leaders and teams fear punishment or some sort of retribution for a transgression. Embarrassment and fear are difficult emotions to manage for everyone.

To reduce these feelings and the possibility of a cover-up, talk about mistakes before they’re made. As a leader, it may sound like “I’m bound to make a mistake or miss something. I invite everyone to talk to me about it. If you make a mistake, I want you to know I have your back. We’ll use our mistakes to learn and get even better.”

This can go a long way. Leaders who display their own fallibility, or capability to make a mistake, normalize it. This demonstrates humility which improves a team’s sense of trust. This then causes others to do the same and paves the way for everyone to be humble and own mistakes.

Apologize for impact, not intention

When we make a mistake that effects another person, an apology is warranted. The effectiveness of that apology is what matters. For years I taught a leadership communication course that included a section on how to apologize. It’s an important skill and one often over-looked in leadership development initiatives. This section of the course was always lively because participants loved to share examples of terrible apologies. These were the top three:

  • “I’m sorry you feel that way”, which implies the wrongdoing is your problem, not the person who committed it.

  • “Sorry!” An incomplete apology with no further explanation for what the person regrets.

  • “I’m sorry but…” Called a non-apology because the use of the word “but” grammatically negates whatever was stated prior.

Another type of apology that often falls flat are those that apologize only for intent. Such as “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to be late for the meeting”, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt you.” or “I’m sorry I don’t intend to sound rude.”

Most professionals don’t intend to make a mistake or behave badly. Having good intentions is implied in the workplace so reminding someone of that won’t remedy or soothe the effect your mistake had. Think of it this way, if you say “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude.” The logical response to that statement is “I hope not!” and the person who felt your rudeness is likely still offended.

Instead, apologize for impact by acknowledging the other person’s experience and commit to not making the mistake again. It sounds like, “I’m sorry about being late today. I delayed the discussion. I want you to know I value your time and it won’t happen again.” Or “I’m sorry about interrupting you. I bet it felt like I wasn’t listening. I’ll wait until you’re finished next time.”

24-hour rule

Rumination has two meanings. The first relates to deliberating or considering something in a thoughtful way. This is fine when work is going well. However, when we make mistakes, we feel distressed and that’s when our negative thoughts take over. We dissect what we could have done differently or rehearse all the different ways we could have said it better. We think, “If only I would have…” These thoughts consume us and make us feel like we can’t escape the mistake we made. When rumination gets to this point, we’re less productive and less effective. In extreme cases, it can compromise our physical health.

This is where the 24-hour rule comes into play. This means you get 24-hours to ruminate on your mistake. Slice it and dice it into all the different ways it could have been prevented. Cry or sulk as much as you would like. Call 10 friends to complain about it. Scream into a pillow, go for a hard run or eat cake. Eat an entire cake if you want, but only in the 24-hour period after the mistake is made.

Then you’re done. No more wallowing, no more ruminating. This is the time to refocus and move forward. Here are few tips:

  1. Stop talking about it. Continuing to talk about your mistake keeps you in a holding pattern. Others also can’t move forward if you continue to remind them of it.

  2. Write down the last three situations in which you made a positive impact and what people said to you about it. Then read it out loud to yourself. This will help nudge self-doubt out of your mind and make room for your confidence to come back.

  3. Think about what you’re good at and complete tasks on your list that use those strengths. We’re all happier and more secure when we apply our strengths to our work.

If that doesn’t work, think about the second meaning of rumination. It refers to the process by which a cow regurgitates (yes, vomits) its previously swallowed food and chews it again. Now apply this definition to ruminating on your mistakes. This means that each time you think about this past error, you’re essentially throwing it back up on yourself. How’s that for an image?

The next time you slip up, know that you’re human and not alone. Take ownership of it, apologize for the impact it had, and use your 24hours. Then get back to work. You have an important contribution to make.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.


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