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Making a Mistake at Work: 3 Strategies You Can Use to Recover

Updated on June 2, 2022Professionals

Maybe your project is off-track. Maybe you’re rushing to get an email out, and you didn’t read it before you dashed it off. Maybe it’s just early and your second cup of coffee didn’t hit you as fast as it should.

Whatever the reason, sometimes we miss the mark at work. The American Institute of Stress reports that a whopping 28% of all workplace stress stems from interpersonal interactions, rather than workload or individual projects. It’s not a big leap to suggest that we’re stressed about disappointing those we work with.

If you’ve ever worried about how your email was received, you’re not alone—everyone worries about how they seem at work. And even if you think you’ve made a huge mistake, there are ways to correct it. Here are a few strategies you can use to right your wrongs when they happen.

Be kind to yourself.

For the conscientious, mistakes often feel like a bigger deal than they are. If you’re a perfectionist, you may be extra hard on yourself. In times of stress, your brain becomes your own worst enemy. If you find yourself catastrophizing or leaning on negative self-talk, try a new script.

Negative Self-Talk: I’m such an idiot! This is the worst.

Positive Self-Talk: People make mistakes—I guess it was my turn. It’s embarrassing, but I’ll get through it.

Apologize, but don’t overdo it.

Be sure not to go overboard with apologies. It’s unlikely that whatever hideous sin you’ve committed requires you to repeatedly fall on your sword in a grand, overwrought mea culpa. In fact, apologizing too profusely can call attention to minor issues and make them seem like bigger problems.

Instead, make a straightforward apology to the appropriate person or persons. And take time to do it right—no, “I’m sorry, but . . . .” The word “but” renders an apology meaningless because what follows is almost always an excuse intended to deflect responsibility rather than accept it.

Analyze what went wrong and prepare a solution.

After you’ve talked yourself down, but before you talk to anyone about what’s gone wrong, analyze the mistake. What did you do (or not do) that caused it? Is there something you could do differently to prevent similar screw-ups in the future? After you apologize, offer a solution that will prevent the same mistake from happening again. It could be anything from an action plan to a simple takeaway you’ve learned as a result of the slip-up.

Everyone makes mistakes. The most important thing we can all do is learn from them.

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