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Five Ways to Recover from a Work Mistake

Five Ways to Recover from a Work Mistake

It happened. You’ve inadvertently done something wrong at your job and you’re red faced, mortified, and perhaps—depending on the ramifications of your error—scared of being called on the carpet to be reprimanded.

You’ll need to move beyond those feelings in order to make amends, correct your actions, and continue to do a good job at work. But that’s easier said than done when you’ve spent the night cursing your oversight or omission.

How can you bounce back after you’ve made a mistake on the job? Lee Branson has some advice. Branson works in warehouse logistics for a prominent Saint Louis manufacturer. He recently instructed one of his employees in the incorrect use of a forklift—, even though he often drives one himself. The employee backed into a tower of goods, spilling them all over the floor. No one was hurt, but cleanup took valuable downtime.
Branson felt terrible for the employee, who was embarrassed, and he realized his short-sighted instructions could have resulted a much worse outcome, he said.

He immediately apologized to the employee and told his boss what happened. He stressed the accident came about because of his poor instructions and was not the forklift driver’s fault.
Then, Branson needed to carry on.

“That was maybe the hardest part,” he said. “I had to keep going, even if I felt like everyone was looking at me and talking about me behind my back.”

If you’ve ever recognized youself in Branson’s story, here are five strategies that can help you quickly recover from an on-the-job mistake so you can get back in the saddle without letting the error throw you too badly.

Pause and breathe
The first thing I would say you should do when you realize you’ve made a mistake is to simply take a deep breath. Just pause and gather yourself, said Farnoosh Brock, author of “The Serving Mindset: Stop Selling and Grow Your Business” (Skyhorse, 2018), who coaches leaders in a range of fields.
“I like to think of what Louise Hay talks about, which is tell yourself: ‘I’m safe, always well and everything is going to work out for my highest good,’” she said.
The affirmation brings you back to the present moment, grounds you, and helps you think clearly, she said.
“Here is what you may not know: your company doesn’t care that you made a mistake. What they really care about is how you recover from it,” Brock said

Make sure it is a mistake
If you’re a particularly sensitive person, or if your self-confidence suffers, you may be equating a normal situation, such as spelling a few words incorrectly in a report or arriving at work five minutes late, with a big blunder, said Clare Singer, an advisor in the Moundsview, Minn., school district who counsels students new to the job market on expected workplace behavior.

You may need to get one or more outsider’s perspective on the issue. The person you go to for feedback needn’t work in your field, though for some issues you will need to talk to someone who understands your job.

Most people can advise you if you’re being too hard on yourself due to being a perfectionist, Singer said.

Own your error
Don’t try to pretend—to yourself and to others—that you didn’t screw up. It’s best to admit your mistake. You will also want to point out why it was a mistake and how or why it happened.
Are you hiding it? Are you trying to cover it up? Are you trying to escape from it? Or, are you coming forth honestly and handling it professionally? Brock asks.

You’ll not only get a measure of respect for owning your mistake in a straightforward way, but you’ll feel better too, said Monique Catoggio, a leadership coach and consultant.
Acknowledge your mistake, acknowledge its seriousness, and let it be known that you’re willing to accept punishment without complaint, she said.

When you’re nervous, it can be tempting to talk too much about what led to the error. A flustered, lengthy explanation won’t help. Keep explanations short, yet thorough, and move the conversation forward to next steps, she said.

Apologize promptly to everyone involved
Owning your mistake and apologizing for it may sound like much the same thing. But they’re not, Singer said.
Owning your error shows you know what you’ve done and how it’s affected others.

“Apologizing expresses your sincere remorse,” Singer said.
Make your apologies heartfelt. Be short, sincere, and impart them in person or over the phone. Be sure to seek out and apologize to everyone affected by your error.

Offer solutions
Go to the people most affected by what you’ve done and offer two or three solutions on how you can make it up to them as quickly as possible, Brock advised.

This will require some forethought, as you’ll need to think through what can be done, what you can do, and the activities that ways you can help rectify the error.

Then, be prepared for their reaction. They might wave you aside good-naturedly, they may be truly angry, or they may give you pushback on your solutions. Whatever their reaction, maintain an apologetic, yet calm manner. Don’t escalate the situation. Reiterate to them that you want to correct matters, if you can, Brock said.

Implementing the above solutions can help you feel hopeful rather than hopeless. No matter what happens in the aftermath of your error, you’ll feel better knowing you took steps to acknowledge and correct your error, Brock said.

And, as always, realize you’re far from the first person who made a major or minor blunder in the workplace. Ask around, your friends and colleagues probably have their own stories.

Jean Thilmany is an independent writer in Saint Paul, Minn.

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