So You Made A Mistake At Work — Here's What To Do

Photographed by Brandon David.
Fact: No matter how on top of things you are, you will make a mistake at work one day. Whether it’s blowing a deadline, sending an e-mail griping about your boss to your boss, or totally dropping the ball on a client, it happens. The good news is that everyone’s been there. The bad news is that it feels just as stomach-churningly horrible for everyone.

Here’s how to get past the “I’m going to throw up” feeling and actually fix whatever happened.
Obviously, each fix is dependent upon your job, the severity of the mistake, and your relationship with your boss, so use whatever works best for your situation. Like it or not, all eyes are on you — here’s how you impress the hell out of everyone with damage control.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
It sounds so obvious, but in the moment, it’s all about getting out of panic mode and into solution mode, says Jena Abernathy, career expert and author of The Inequality Equalizer. "You need a clear head in order to figure out the best next steps."

“I remind myself that one more minute doesn’t matter,” says Emily, 32, a marketing manager. “I used to be so eager to fix things that I’d send an email right away, followed by two or three more with extra thoughts or more information to my manager or client whenever I realized there was an error. Now, I just slow down and breathe. I’ll try to get away from my desk and go to the bathroom, and I also sometimes pull up photos of my puppy on my phone while I’m doing it. It’s just a reminder that there is more to life than work and I’m going to be fine.”

In fact, make that your mantra. It will be fine.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
“I start with the most bizarre, out-there scenarios, like I could throw my computer out the window, run away, and never come back. Then I gradually get to the more realistic ones. But I like thinking of the most extreme situations, because it reminds me that, hey, I have free will. I don’t have to do anything. But then I also make sure I think of some actual ways to solve the problem," says Kristin, 30, a grants administrator for an arts nonprofit.

"Your boss will want to hear solutions, so it's best to come up with a couple of concepts before you bring up the mistake," says Abernathy. While throwing your laptop out the window isn't the smartest solution, knowing it is a possibility can help you get out of panic mode and into problem-solving mode, fast.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Yup, this is the nail-biting moment that you knew was coming. If it's not something you can easily fix yourself, it's time to let someone higher up know.

Your manager may be justifiably annoyed or angry at the situation, but know going in that’s not a reflection of you as a person or a professional, says career expert Molly Ford Beck, creator of the lifestyle website Smart, Pretty & Awkward. And they’re only going to be more annoyed or angry if you keep it under wraps.

When you head in to speak with them, keep the info as fact-based as possible. Apologize briefly, but for now, focus how you plan on doing damage control. Give two or three possible fixes, but respect that they might want to take it from here, says Abernathy, especially if it's a complex problem or one that might lose the company money or clients.

And avoid an information dump: You’ve likely been thinking about this for awhile, but it’s the first time they’re hearing it, so give them time to process.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Don’t blame your computer, your phone, or the IT guy who never got around to doing a server update. Instead, keep it simple. “I apologize, I should have been more on top of this and right now, I’m 100% committed to fixing it," suggests Beck.

But don't grovel. Mistakes happen, and a good manager recognizes that. Right now, the problem is on her plate, so she likely wants to fix it ASAP. She doesn't have the time or the bandwidth to calm you down, too.
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If you’ve been trying to do damage control over email, stop, say the experts. For one, an email chain could become evidence if your mistake escalates to a legal level. (I know, I know. It probably won't get to that level, but way better safe than sorry.)

But even if it's a relatively low-level offense, it's still best to talk it out rather than rely on email. And remember, the worst part is dialing — once the person on the other end picks up, you can stop thinking about it. If it makes you less nervous, write down your talking points or even draft the e-mail you would have sent. And make sure your boss is OK with you doing the call — she may want to handle the situation herself, especially if it seems the person on the receiving end is going to be especially irate.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
For minor stuff, or everyday issues that happen with your team, like turning in an assignment a day after an agreed-upon deadline or double-booking on a day that you and a team member were supposed to have a brainstorm session, getting a coffee can be a way to say, “Hey, I apologize for dropping the ball and it won't happen again."

Of course, you also want to make sure you're doing everything you can to avoid having to do this often. But life happens, and sometimes, a bout of stomach flu or a laptop malfunction means things just can't work the way they thought you would. A coffee is just an acknowledgement that you recognize the other person was inconvenienced as well — plus, the minor hit to your wallet can help remind you to do better next time.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
One step further than the "I'm sorry" coffee, this is a move that should only be done when the stakes are relatively low.

One R29 staffer swears by the doughnut move, which he discovered after he overslept and woke up after a team meeting had already begun. I bought a dozen donuts and put them in the center of the table. Everyone attacked the donuts, and no one even said anything about my late arrival.”

If the mistake truly was a once-in-a-blue-moon blip that doesn’t have the potential of royally pissing off higher-ups or clients, it’s worth a try. Bottom line: It’s inconvenient and annoying when someone arrives late to a meeting, so making an “I’m sorry” gesture prior to being called out is a wordless way to say, “Hey, I know I was being That Employee. I’m sorry and it won’t happen again.”
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Even if there’s nothing you can do, or your boss has made it clear she wants to handle it, being at your desk before anyone else for the next few days or weeks shows that you’re contrite. But make sure you’re actually doing work, as she is likely to raise her eyebrow if the only thing you have open on your screen is your Facebook page.

"You need to be aware that you will be watched more intensely in the days after a mistake," says Abernathy. "When you know that, you can turn it into a good thing. You can prove your commitment to the job and really show that you're at the top of your game."
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Not an early riser? Then make a plan to stay at your desk later than your boss for the next few days. Annoying? Yes. But appearances count, and face time is essential to remind your boss you're still a really valuable employee.
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It’s so tempting to lay low until your confidence is restored, but that can be the worst move. Instead, volunteer to spearhead a project, lead a meeting, or even take an annoying task off your coworker’s desk, says Abernathy.

Not only does this show you're a gung-ho employee, it also helps you take your mind off what happened and focus on the future.
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Here’s where the soul-searching takes place. Because if you don’t know how the mistake happened, you won’t be able to prevent it again. And be honest: If the mistake happened because you’re unfamiliar with certain protocol, figure out who in your company you can have a one-on-one with to train you, suggests Beck.

"A lot of mistakes can be categorized under first-timer mistakes; you've never done this before, so of course you didn't do it perfectly. The good news is that a boss is forgiving of a first time mistake," says Beck. That said, a boss is only forgiving of it once. That's why it's up to you to really understand where you had a misunderstanding and figure out the fix. The fix can be simple — like an iCal alert to remind you to file expense reports — or it may involve a tutorial from someone who does this regularly. Regardless, the fix is on you, not your manager, to figure out.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
“I have a list of 100 things I’ve done that I’m proud of in my career,” says Stacy, 30, a restaurant manager. “I made it on my phone during a commute, and I take it out and look at it when I've effed something up. I reminds me that I have had so many more wins than mistakes and that I’ll get back on track soon.”

Career experts say this is smart. Depending on the severity of the mistake and how your boss handled it, your confidence may have taken a hit, which is totally normal. Since you aren't getting external validation — your boss is likely holding back on the good job emails for now — it's even more important to find that validation within yourself, says Abernathy.
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Have 10 different text threads talking through every angle of the mistake? Stop. Agonizing will only make it worse. And the same goes for commiserating with coworkers.

"The more you bring it up, the more people will connect you with the mistake," says Abernathy. If you have to talk about it, call a friend or family member and give yourself 20 minutes to vent, guilt-free. But then, forget about it. Or at least stop talking about it.
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Successful people use a work mistake as a tool to discover what else isn’t working in their lives, says Abernathy. Did the mistake happen because you were on a time crunch? Figure out a way to prioritize your calendar. Did it happen because you were unsure of your priorities? Time to schedule a manager one-on-one.

Here's a secret: It's impossible to do everything perfectly. So it's up to you to prioritize your time so you spend the most time on the things that matter the most to you, your manager, and your career. Slack messages to your work wife don't need proofreading — client-facing e-mails do. Reminding yourself of where a task falls in the hierarchy of importance and giving optimal time, attention, and energy to the ones at the top of the list — can ensure that these mistakes won't happen again.
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“Whenever I make a work mistake, it’s a sign that I’m not taking care of myself the way I should be,” says Emily, 28, a PhD candidate. “So I’ll take a yoga or spin class. I also find that sweating it out can help me get rid of my panic.” Don’t take yoga if you hate it, but do something nice for yourself.

Reminding yourself that there's a whole life outside the office can be so helpful in moving past the panic stage and into the solution stage — which is exactly where you need to be right now.
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Phew. Whatever the fallout, it's done. Repeat: It is over. Now, it's time to focus on the future.

The good news: Managers are always impressed by someone who can handle a mistake efficiently and effectively, so your post-mistake rep may be even better than it was before the error even happened. Obviously, we're not saying eff things up on purpose, but know that the silver lining at the end can make the mistake pay off in the long run.
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