6 Lessons My Work Screw-ups Have Taught Me


We all make mistakes at work. Some are minor — and some are downright cringe-worthy. I made these six mistakes so that you don’t have to.

1. Don’t make waves until you’ve been on the job for at least a year.

The time frames here aren’t what’s important, as every job is different, but I’ve learned to spend my first six months to one year of a job doing a lot more listening than talking. It took me years to realize that often things are done a certain way for a very particular reason and that we can’t change things until we fully understand them. I am a very outspoken person, so I now make it a point to reserve judgment and keep from suggesting sweeping changes until I have spent a long time listening and understanding.

2. Don’t be the office spokesperson.

Sometimes extroverted people feel the need to voice the collective mumblings and grumblings of their peers to management. This may seem like a worthy cause (everyone is upset about this, if only management knew, they could change it!), but it’s likely to backfire. You won’t be the office hero and innovator; you’ll just be the loudmouth who complains about everything

3. Your office friendships may be holding you back.

When I started my job I befriended a co-worker who was negative, combative and not viewed in a positive light by management. I was friends with her because I liked who she was as a person, though I didn’t necessarily agree with her opinions or actions at work. A few months later I was shocked to find out that management was assuming that I was aligned with her beliefs and work ethic. Had I known that, I would have distanced myself from her at work. Choose your work BFF carefully, or at least save most of the interaction for coffee breaks and happy hour.

4. Pick your battles.

Don’t be that employee that argues about every little thing. Sure, it might be annoying that a process is done in a certain way, but is it really important to you? If you save your energy for the battles that going to make a significant difference to you, your coworkers and the public, you’re more likely to be taken seriously and to be empowered to enact change.

5. Never argue over email.

In fact, never have any conversation that may carry any emotional weight at all over email. Email is a useful tool, but it is so easy to have your intentions misinterpreted. Emails never go away. Before you fire off a heated response to an email, walk around the block, walk up and down the stairs, or just take a walk around the parking garage. When you come back, I can guarantee you that you will likely delete the draft.

6. Listen. Pause. Repeat.

I put this one last because I am still working on it, but it may be the most important one. I talk over people. I grew up in a large family and I learned that to be heard you have to talk loud and fast. This may be true at home, but don’t bring this baggage to work. I’ve missed out on so many wonderful insights (and annoyed the heck out of people) by talking over others. I just recently realized that I do this, so now I have to remind myself to listen and then pause before speaking; don’t just wait for the other person to talk, actively listen to what they are saying instead of mentally preparing a response, then pause for a few seconds and respond- you’ll be shocked at what you learn and how your work relationships improve when you actively listen to others.

We can all learn from each other’s work mistakes. What are your biggest work mistakes and what did you learn from them?

Samantha McCormick is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Samantha, great article! Thanks so much for writing this; I can really relate, as well! I have had #3 happen to me and I am glad I realized I needed to distance myself earlier rather than later. Thanks for sharing these lessons – great reminders for me.

Hannah Moss

Great post with super helpful advice! If you’re looking for more info. on what people learn from their careers, I’d highly suggest the book Mistakes I Made at Work by Jessica Bacal. It follows a similar vein of learning from mistakes.