How to recover from making mistakes at work

Written by: Erika Khanna | Edited by: Alison Robins | Illustrated by: Officevibe team
Published on February 25, 2021 |  Reading time: 9m

We know that making mistakes at work can feel frustrating or even embarrassing. Whether you make an honest mistake on a project or lead your team astray, making a mistake happens to the best of us. This is especially true when you’re pressed for time and juggling priorities.

Before jumping into fix-it mode, it’s important to recognize that no individual mistake is created equal, and the way to recover from them varies. We’re here to give you the information you need to recover from the different types of mistakes managers make.

To make mistakes or be wrong is human. To admit those mistakes shows you have the ability to learn, and are growing wiser.

Donald L. Hicks

7 tips to recover from making mistakes at work

Mistakes make us human and are part of our growth process. When a misstep happens, it’s an opportunity to learn different skills. The tricky part is knowing how to recover from making mistakes at work.

No one mistake is created equal, which means there are different ways to recover from each one. Learning important traits like accountability, collaboration, and knowing how to ask for help are part of overcoming a mistake.

“Be mindful that your team members are watching. Your reaction sets the tone for future behaviors within the team. Owning your part and taking accountability for your mistake sets the stage for how employees will behave in the future. It’s in these moments, remember to lead by example and have a positive influence on your team’s culture.”

Julie Jeannotte, Culture & Engagement Expert at Officevibe

We’ve outlined seven steps to help you recover from making mistakes at work. Each one can be used individually or as a step-by-step guide.

1. Take ownership

Depending on the magnitude of your mistake, you may feel the need to react quickly or breeze past it. Taking ownership of making mistakes gives you the opportunity to solve them. Ask yourself what you can do to make it right. Being accountable and humble helps you prevent a downward spiral to blame culture.

💡 Tip: Pause and understand the scope of your mistake. Identify your role in what happened instead of rushing past it. Once you understand what went wrong, you can work proactively to solve it.

2. Inform the right people

Once you’ve identified the root cause of your mistake, inform everyone who it might impact so they have visibility. To avoid a trickle-down effect, be sure to do this promptly.

💡 Tip: Let those impacted know you’re open to suggestions about finding a solution. Speak to mentors, a boss, or colleagues who can lend a helping hand.

3. Separate facts from feelings

It’s normal to feel embarrassed when you make mistakes at work. Rather than reacting, take a pause to separate facts from emotions. Doing this is a sign of leadership, maturity, and pragmatism. Your team recognizes that they can fail forward and trust you to support them when you lead by example.

💡 Tip: Think about your mistake in terms of cause and effect: what happened and what is the effect of what happened. Let go of emotions that cloud your judgment. Stick to the facts to recover from your mistake while maintaining the trust of your team.

4. Be solution-oriented

All aboard the road to recovery! solution-oriented mindset encourages levelheadedness and prevents overthinking. This prevents fewer mistakes from happening in the future. As you progress towards a solution, you’ll solve the mistake and you may even prevent the same one from happening again.

💡 Tip: Keep calm and identify a resolution that will have positive lasting effects. Maintain a solution-oriented mindset to demonstrate your leadership ability while learning something new in the process.

5. Keep a learner’s mindset

Remember that you’re still learning. You’re a person who occasionally makes an honest mistake. Failing forward nurtures your leadership development, and equips you with the thick skin you need to grow.

💡 Tip: Recognize that learning from making mistakes at work is a process. Break down possible solutions into small steps to digest each learning.

6. Apply the solution

Put your solution into action. As you begin to calmly navigate the road to recovery, you’ll notice how solutions fall into place. Be intentional about the steps you take. This will prevent future downfalls and cast a safety net for you and your team.

💡 Tip: Log the progress you make as you recover from a mistake. Keep a note of the skills and information you’ve learned along the way.

7. Be open and transparent

When you’ve applied the solution to your mistake, take the time to run through what went wrong. Alternatively, register how you made things right. Leading by example teaches your team how making a mistake at work happens and there are ways of recovering from them.

💡 Tip: Host a postmortem as it applies to the mistake that you made. Discuss how you came up with the solution and how the mistake was resolved. Share your learnings and make them accessible to teammates.

Spot the types of mistakes managers make

Let’s face it, you’re not only doing the work you’re also looking after a team. That means managers who make mistakes at work have a wider margin of error for repeated mistakes.

When it comes to making a mistake at work, we noticed two main areas of focus for managers:

  • Technical mistakes related to skills, projects, and tasks
  • Relational mistakes related to interpersonal dynamics

Technical mistakes

Technical mistakes pop up when you’re pressed for time. They’re related to tasks, projects, and fine details. They’re not always easy to spot and are finicky to fix. But, making this type of mistake doesn’t mean that you’re bad at your job. On the contrary, it demonstrates room for your own growth.

Here are examples of technical mistakes you might make:

  • Underestimating or overestimating project bandwidth timelines
  • Sharing information that includes typos or obvious miscalculations
  • Publicly sharing information that was meant for internal use

Think about what it’s like for you to be in crunch time for an important project. The stakes are high and there are many moving parts. Adding to that, your team relies on you to cast an eye over their work, before hitting submit. Not to mention, your boss has high expectations. Naturally, you make a few tweaks and feel confident the project has come together to meet the criteria of its stakeholders.

The satisfaction of submitting your team’s project quickly fades into stress as you notice a typo in the first sentence, and another one, and another one. Gulp. Glancing at the clock, there’s still time to fix these careless mistakes. Let’s apply some of our tips:

Take ownership

Acknowledge that your edits had typos of their own, and now you need to fix them.

Inform the right people

Let stakeholders know that you’re working on a fix and will be sending an updated version shortly.

Separate facts from feelings

Let go of lingering anxiety or embarrassment and follow the facts: what needs to be addressed, and how you can address it.

Stay solution-oriented

You got this. Stay in-the-zone to get work done quickly, with focus and precision.

Take note

Moving quickly can result in tripping over your own shoelaces. How can this be prevented in the future? Jot it down as you go.

Wrap it up

Once you’ve corrected your mistakes and properly combed through the project with an eagle eye, hit that submit button and take a deep breath.

Be transparent with your team

Host a project post mortem, let them know that mistakes happen, especially when you’re pressed for time. Let them know that the goal is to prevent this from happening again. Provide examples about how. For example: collaborate on last-minute edits or ask a third party to review your project with fresh eyes.

When you apply these steps, your team will thank you for teaching them something new. It’s ideal since they’ll learn by example, paving the way for a collaborative workplace dynamic.

Relational mistakes: interpersonal dynamics

Making mistakes at work related to interpersonal dynamics is a grey area. After all, no one team dynamic is the same. If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve mismanaged an employee, don’t panic. Having the ability to remain human throughout the recovery process maintains the trust you’ve built with your team.

“A few months ago, I got caught up in being focused on task management and it resulted in a bit of micro-managing. I hit a wall because there are only so many hours in the day! It’s tough but, through some much needed conversations with my team, I learned that they needed me more as their coach and leader.

Now, I focus on management responsibilities because I trust my team to deliver higher quality work without my constant involvement. I think they appreciate the opportunity to learn and explore. Win win win.”

Myles Carter, Content Manager at Sharegate

Picture this: You deliver critical feedback to a teammate but the words aren’t coming out quite right. You realize you aren’t as prepared as you should be. Your teammate lets you know they’re confused since next steps and action items aren’t clearly defined. You don’t have a close relationship with this person and worry that being overly frank could offend them.

Time for a pause. Ask yourself if psychological safety is at the heart of your conversation. When teams can express how they feel, they’ll trust that you have their professional interest at heart. Let’s apply some of our tips:

Speak up

Let your teammate know that you’re working on delivering better feedback.

Ask them to clarify what they heard

Ask what they’ve taken away from your initial conversation. Level the playing field by emphasizing that this isn’t a test, it’s a collaborative conversation to get you both on the same page.

Remember not to take things personally

Distinguishing work-related topics from emotions enables both parties to work through a given stressor. Identify the objective of your conversation. Remember that this is an opportunity to connect with your teammate. You can do this by encouraging each other to say things like “when X happens, I feel Y.”

Break these down

Define next steps and follow up in an email so that it stays top of mind.

Following these steps will nurture your own managerial growth and develop a closer relationship with your team.

Officevibe helps you with difficult conversations
Officevibe helps your team share their anonymous feedback

If a teammate doesn’t feel comfortable expressing themselves fully, Officevibe can help with that. Our anonymous feedback tool is built with your manager-to-team relationship in mind. We know that value comes from hard conversations. This way, employees can open up and share their insights anonymously.

The next time you make a mistake at work, know that it’s possible to come back from it. Equipping yourself to recover quickly and efficiently will help your own growth and your team’s dynamic. The key resides in taking accountability and maintaining a growth mindset.