What to Do When You’ve Royally Screwed Up at Work (Part 1)

“You’re tackling a typical day in the office, juggling meetings, phone calls, and that hyperactive inbox of yours, when suddenly it hits you – the worst possible feeling to have at work. Your heart drops, your face goes cold, and your adrenaline kicks in. You’ve just realized you’ve made a mistake.” – Ashley Cobert, Public Relations Professional first-5-icon-07

There’s nothing worse than that “oh s$&%” moment and the feeling of knowing you’ve royally screwed up at work. We’ve all been there and First 5  is here to help. When you’re a young professional, you’re bound to make a few mistakes. But panicking or trying to ignore the problem is the last thing you should do. In her article on themuse, Ashley Cobert shares three types of reactions that people tend to have when they make a mistake at work:

#1: The “Over Apologizer” Approach
You realize you’ve made a HUGE mistake and you’re out the door telling everyone you encounter about the big mistake and that you need help. “I’m SO SORRY,” is your key motto, because you’re convinced that your little spelling error means the end of your organization and the republic itself.

I definitely tend to fall into this category because I want to be honest, upfront, and show that I am accountable for my mistakes. However, Cobert says this approach poses several problems. While the Over-Apologizer shows remorse and that she cares, she might be demonstrating to everyone else that she can’t handle tough situations. Your apology is also taking important time away from work by stressing everyone else out.

#2: The “Slip It Under the Rug and Hope Nobody Notices” Approach
You realize you made a mistake yesterday and you don’t want to react yet because you know it could make you look bad. Instead, you just keep quiet and hope nobody notices. When your manager finally realizes your mistake, you make a weak excuse and brush the issue aside like it’s no big deal.

You feel like you’re mitigating the situation by making sure no one panics. You’re also protecting your reputation – so you think. But to others, this can look like you’re insincere and that you don’t care about your job or don’t take it seriously. You also risk not resolving the situation and making it worse over time.

#3: The “Just Right” Approach
Sometimes, the best approach to owning a mistake at work is to be somewhere right down the middle. Upon realizing your error, don’t react right away. Instead, take a breather and analyze some possible solutions. Cobert cites the example of pushing send on a press release that was supposed to be on hold until tomorrow. Call the distribution right away and see if you can catch it before it goes live.

Or, if your mistake isn’t easily retractable, devise a couple of solutions to the problem before finding the right people to talk to. Connect with the people who are most affected by the problem and give a clear description of what happened.

The “Just Right” approach sounds simple enough, right? But it can be difficult to apply this approach, especially when you’re newer in your career and haven’t had much experience with addressing mistakes in the office.

Stay tuned for next week’s “Part 2” post to learn some more concrete and tactical steps you can take when you’ve messed up at work.


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Kevin Lanahan

Owning your mistakes is hard, but is the best way to handle a snafu.

In my early days, I brought down the entire state’s web server by not optimizing my queries. I learned a lot about my database platform and became much more aware of my development process.

Big mistakes are an opportunity to learn, and should not be feared.