The Best Ways to Handle Mistakes at Work


In a perfect world we learn from our mistakes and don’t make the same ones twice.

In a more perfect world we don’t make mistakes.

Ah, if only everything were perfect.

No one likes to make honest mistakes but of course we all do. In the private sector, “failing” has become a trendy step in the path to success with books, articles, and TED talks praising the benefits of picking yourself up after falling down on the job.

The stakes can be high when public servants misstep, and many employees may think a mistake will make it into their permanent personnel file, affecting them for years to come. Yet corrected mistakes can be seen as a powerful sign of growth and preparation for more demanding tasks.  And although embarrassing, mistakes are rarely as serious as they may seem.

So how do supervisors in the public sector manage mistakes in the workplace?

For me, I take positive measures that are both preemptive and reactive.

Know when a mistake is just a mistake

There’s more than one way to make a mistake, but most importantly if your employees make one, you want it to be an honest mistake. Employees who consistently make honest mistakes may have a performance issue, which supervisors should handle privately and swiftly, as honest mistakes are often also training issues.

Unethical or illegal activity should be handled in accordance with your bureau’s rules and regulations. Any federal government employee who observes malfeasant or illegal activity is obligated to report it through appropriate bureau channels or through the OIG (Office of the Inspector General) Hotline.

Take fear out of the picture

Most of us were, at one point, petrified that a single mistake would end our careers or cause irreparable damage to our agency’s mission. Remind your employees that they’ve been hired and trained in order to make judgment calls when those are necessary and sometimes they might make the wrong one – but that you will support them if they followed standard procedure and guidance. What you don’t want are employees who are unable to make the call when it’s needed because they fear the fallout from you more than they appreciate the importance of doing the job.

Beef up your trainings

Set your employees up for success by ensuring they have the trainings they need before they work independently with minimal oversight. This takes organization and commitment. No matter how high the grade or how senior the position, no one can be expected to set foot in an office on Day 1 or even Day 10 on top of their game. Setting aside time for training is a workforce issue for many agencies. In my office, it’s not just a priority, it’s mandatory. On my team, colleagues brief each other at our weekly team meetings on any trainings that might be relevant to everyone else. New employees shadow more seasoned officers as often as necessary and for as long as makes sense.

Be a coach, not a pacesetter

I wasn’t surprised to learn at a leadership training class that my natural management style was pacesetting. As a type-A overachiever, I set my team up to meet a high standard of excellence, sometimes doing tasks myself and expecting them to learn by my example.

I learned pretty quickly that pacesetting can lead to poor employee morale, creating an atmosphere where employees are reluctant to report any mistakes because they fear they cannot live up to their supervisor’s high expectations. Through oversight you might still learn about mistakes but it is much better to hear about them directly and immediately from an employee so that you can work together to identify corrective action and bring in other colleagues as necessary.

You may get better results by incorporating a coaching management style, which would foster both a desire to achieve and a sense of engagement in the learning process.

Take the oops out of the closet

Once you and your employee have taken corrective action, consider whether the team could learn something from the mistake. One idea is to create an Oops blog on your team’s intranet such as Sharepoint. Another is to ask the employee who made the mistake to organize a briefing, perhaps inviting an expert on the subject, or a brown bag lunch where colleagues can weigh in on how they’ve dealt with similar challenges.

Own up to your mistakes

Lead by example and hold yourself to the same standards of accountability that you hold your team to. When you’ve made a mistake, say so, and if it’s a mistake your employee made but you should have caught, take responsibility for that one too.

As a supervisor, do not make any assumptions in your work. You can be sure that if you do not understand something it’s probably not clear. Ask as many questions as necessary to get it right. In my office we aim for consensus and bring in many colleagues with different levels of expertise before sending something out the door or making that judgment call.

The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Carolee Walker 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.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Hannah Moss

These are awesome tips! Especially your first point about recognizing ‘honest mistakes’ vs. avoidable or intentional mishaps is a great one to note.

Terra Milles

We have a motto of ‘fail forward’ which makes it ok to try new things even if some of them don’t work out. It helps everyone know that mistakes are a part of the continual learning process.

Russell Irving

Carolee, I love your topic. – I remember a mentor once telling me that we should look at ‘mistakes’ as ‘mis takes’ as in the filming of a movie. Learn from it and do another ‘take’.


Hi Carolee,

Happy New Year. This is a much needed topic. It inspires and motivates all of us to work as a team to foster the mission of our agencies.
Terra, I never heard of the concept of “fail forward” before. But, but I love it so much that I am going to borrow it.

Dijon N. Rolle

Carolee, great info! I especially liked the training aspect you wrote about. I think it’s important to set everyone up for success and make an investment in your people.

Toni Messina

This is great for communications planning, too. If it’s your mistake, own it, fix it and move forward. I’m aware of one workplace that gives annual “doghouse” awards that feature the bad outcome but celebrate lessons learned.

Samantha McCormick

Great post! I love that you mention training. I always remind new hires that most mistakes that they make are actually my fault, because I didn’t ensure that they were trained correctly and completely. Thanks for the awesome post!