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Handling Mistakes at Work

We all make mistakes, right? It’s not a great feeling, and it’s not exactly something that’s easy to bounce back from. And making mistakes at work? That can be even worse, especially when you’ve got a lot of people counting on you. 

So how can you learn to take responsibility, be resilient, and grow from the experience? And if you’re a leader, how can you help your team do the same? We’ve got a few tips!

When you make the mistake:

Experience the emotions.

That pit in your stomach, the guilt, the swimming brain… they’re all natural and understandable feelings for the situation. Avoiding these feelings and jumping into action mode can lead to rash decisions that make the situation worse. Give yourself some time to feel the unpleasant emotions before switching to damage control. 

Acknowledge your responsibility.

Once you’ve given yourself time to process your feelings and reach a less-intense emotional state, it’s important to acknowledge the mistake quickly, and make any apologies necessary if the situation calls for it. The sooner a mistake can be acknowledged, the sooner it can be dealt with. 

Gain perspective, and focus on productive recovery.

Try not to focus on all of the negative consequences of your mistake — while there are, of course, negative results and consequences that are likely to happen as a result of it, dwelling on those things will negatively impact your mental health and future success. Whether it’s taking a walk, grabbing a drink of water, or even switching to a new project for a little while, being able to recover mentally from a mistake will clear the way for reflection and growth. 

When someone on your team makes the mistake:

Treat the situation with care.

We get it; when a staff member makes a mistake, it can mean a lot of headaches for the person in charge. When approaching an employee or team member about a mistake, however, it’s important to think of the outcome you want from the situation. If growth and improvement are your goals, then showing compassion and understanding in the moment will go a long way toward building trust between the two of you. This typically leads to increased productivity and reduced employee turnover. 

Look at the big picture. 

An important question to ask in these situations is: 

Is this a frequent mistake? 

There’s a big difference between a team member who makes frequent, repeated mistakes and one who slips up every once in a while. A team member who has a track record of making mistakes over and over again is going to need more hands-on management in order to get back on track, than someone who simply had an “off” moment and needs some quick redirection. 

Lead with curiosity.

The most important takeaways from a mistake should be:

  1. What led to this mistake happening?
  2. How can we keep it from happening again?

The best way to deal directly with a mistake is to approach your team member with questions designed to understand it, so that you can support them as they take steps toward prevention. Entering a conversation like this with blame as the end game rarely results in a positive outcome that supports a productive future. 

Remember: The goal is to exist in a workplace that is focused on future success. It’s only natural that mistakes are going to be a part of that! Finding a positive, productive way to work through them will be the long-term key to a healthy work environment.