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How To Recover From Making a Mistake at Work How To Recover From Making a Mistake at Work
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How to Recover from Making a Mistake at Work

Sarah Schott •  January 12, 2016 | Business and Careers

SchottbPeople don't like to admit when they've made a mistake. Mistakes can be costly. They can be embarrassing. And they can signal to others a lack of judgment or a shortage of skills.

They can also cause panic. I remember early in my career when I was working in a law firm, I once made a mistake in a set of client documents that had been legally filed before I realized the error. As a young professional trying to build my credibility, the misstep felt huge. I still remember walking down the hallway to share the news with the firm's partner. My heart was racing. It almost felt as if the world was closing in on me.

As it turns out, the mistake wasn't nearly as monumental as I feared, was correctable and didn't affect my long-term professional reputation or the willingness of others to work with me. But through that experience and many others that followed, I've learned a lot about how to recover from making mistakes in the workplace. In my mind, the chance of recovering from a mistake improves significantly if you take some common-sense steps:

1. Take a step back. It's probably not as bad as you think. It's human nature to assume the worst possible outcome before all the facts are known. There's even a word for it: "awfulizing." But in my experience, the consequences of our mistakes rarely live up to the drama that begins to play out in our heads when we realize we've done something wrong. Of course, if you've made a mistake at work, the impact on your team or on your company obviously depends on the nature of the error. But you can begin to gauge the impact on your reputation and your career by looking at how your leaders have handled mistakes they have made or that have been made by others in the past. Have people been given the opportunity to turn things around and learn from their mistakes? If so, take heart. You may also be given that same opportunity.

2. Own up to it. Admitting you've made a mistake is a critical step in making it right. If you make a mistake at work, you'll almost always need someone's help to fix it. That's why, as a leader, I'd prefer somebody come to my office and tell me he or she has made a mistake rather than try to hide from it. I think you can actually come out looking pretty good if you say, "I've made a mistake, and here's how I suggest we fix it. Can I walk you through what I think we have in front of us?" That kind of attitude demonstrates integrity and strength. I worry a lot more about people who will try to power through it on their own without asking for help.

3. Turn it into a learning opportunity. Create a culture for yourself that allows you to grow from the experience of making mistakes. After making a mistake, you may have to make a conscious effort to say, "Even though I feel bad, I am going to work very hard to experiment with getting better or demonstrating skills more effectively next time." Try to look at your mistakes as learning opportunities. Adopt a growth mindset. And look to your peer group for support. When I was a young professional, one of the things that I loved about being in the law department was that there were five or six people who did the exact same thing that I did. So, if I went to them and said, "I just had a meeting with so-and-so or I just did this presentation on X, Y, Z and it tanked!" they could commiserate with me and then offer suggestions on what I might do next time. Peer groups can give great feedback because they do many of the same things you do, and they know your landscape.

Making a mistake never feels good. But mistakes will happen. The important thing is how you respond when you make one. These three steps will help you respond constructively and increase the likelihood that you’ll not only survive your mistake, but that you’ll learn and grow from it as well.   

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