Life & Work Skills

4 Steps to Take After Making a Mistake at Work


As an adult, I don’t often find myself embarrassed. The mortifying moments of youth just don’t hold the same weight as an adult. You have a crush? Don’t hide it, go get it, girl. Tripped in front of your friends? I doubt they will laugh. The moments I have found myself embarrassed as an adult have pretty much all stemmed from career mistakes — and I can assure you, I have made plenty. All those years in school and you never learn some of the simple lessons that will make succeeding in the workforce easier. I’ll take an email etiquette lesson over reading a tenth Shakespeare play any day.

As much as some of my most cringe-worthy career mistakes have haunted me, I try to embrace them — not hide from them. As nice as it would be to completely erase those mistakes from memory, I find it better to bring them front and center. Thinking carefully about my career mistakes has helped me in ways I never would have predicted, and my seemingly masochistic habits are ones you can replicate during your own career.


Step 1: Own It

This part is the hardest, so let’s get it out of the way. Own up to your mistakes sooner rather than later. When caught in a work mistake, your natural reaction will be to defend yourself — and you should, as long as you truly aren’t in the wrong. But how often has trying to cover a mistake ever actually worked out? I find people who lie at work or blame others for their mistakes are unbelievably transparent. Unless you’re Don Draper, you probably can’t talk your way out of trouble as well as you think you can. If you want to gain respect in the workplace, own up to your mistakes. Apologize when necessary, and don’t be afraid to ask for help to ensure the same mistakes aren’t repeated.


Step 2: Don’t Avoid It

By taking the time to really soak up the regret of your mistakes, you can learn how to avoid them. Put your foot in your mouth at the office holiday party? Skip that third glass of champagne next time. Know you won’t be able to finish your work on time? Be honest with your boss when your workload is getting to be too much. If you’ve found yourself in over your head at a job because you exaggerated your experience in a job interview, don’t do it again. None of us are perfect; we all have a weak spot. It may be better to face this weakness head-on than trying to hide it from everyone you work with.


Step 3: Learn From It

I do not do my best work under pressure. Procrastinating does not give me a rush of energy, it halts my productivity. Feeling like I’m in a time crunch can make me freeze. I’ll find myself at a loss for words, which is (of course) detrimental to a writer. I know I perform best when my time is well-managed. This doesn’t mean I can’t be super busy and do my work well, it just means I can’t ever feel like I’m racing the clock to meet a deadline. I know this about myself, which is why I’ve learned to manage my time in a way that works for me. As a student, I always finished my homework days — and oftentimes weeks — in advance.

Now that I work for myself, I can arrange to get my work done early so that way I never feel rushed, because I know I make mistakes when I rush. This is something that I was made to feel bad about in past jobs, so I spent a lot of time trying to “improve” myself. During the course of this reflection, I realized everyone makes mistakes when they rush, which was empowering. Now that I work for myself, I am able to control my workload in a way that ensures I am never rushing. I get my assignments done early, and if I am asked to take on extra work, I can decide whether or not I can appropriately finish that project. Because I don’t have a boss, I can say no if I need to and that has been a valuable lesson to learn.


Step 4: Leave It

I don’t think I even have to say this, but we all make mistakes — yes, even that manager at work who loudly walks around saying how they never make mistakes and are so sick of people who do. Making a mistake at work can sting — there can be a lot of embarrassment, regret, anger, and disappointment associated with it. And even though my whole argument stems around the fact that you should lean into these mistakes, there comes a point where you need to move on from them (after you’ve learned from them, of course). Don’t let regret and the fear of mistakes hold you back in your career; making mistakes is an important part of the learning process. Bouncing back from them simply adds to your value as an employee.