Screwups happen at work all the time, in fact, the typical employee makes 118 mistakes per year. While some mistakes are worse than others, screwing up at the office isn’t necessarily the end of the world.
People in general tend to be pretty tolerant and forgiving, so it’s probably not as big of a deal as you may think. And how you react in the aftermath will help you grow and move forward.
It should be said that if you were involved in something like sexual harassment, racism, or workplace violence, you are probably in for a bit more of a process that involves your HR department (and perhaps company lawyers). So that is a different situation altogether, but you can still gain some insight from the information in this post.
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Table of Contents
Accept your Blame in the Situation
When you screw up, it’s best if you just own it outright. Don’t make excuses, don’t deflect blame, don’t point the finger at others, just go ahead and admit that you made a mistake. This will make the whole process easier.
If you get defensive and argumentative, it will make you look emotionally stunted and people will lose respect for you. Furthermore, these same people will be less inclined to help you through the situation and forgive you later on.
By accepting your blame, you will free up precious mental energy that can be focused toward getting through the situation. This same energy might otherwise be spent on fruitlessly convincing yourself and others of your innocence if you get defensive.
One thing to keep in mind, is that you shouldn’t accept blame for something that isn’t your fault. For example, if your manager is trying to make you a scapegoat for his or her screwup, do not accept fault just because you are afraid to make waves. Don’t be afraid to speak up and defend yourself, otherwise you run the risk of becoming an office punching bag.
Verbalize and Apologize
Odds are your manager is aware of the screwup and will talk to you about it. During this conversation, explain your perspective of situation and point out where you went wrong. Be straight forward and stick to the facts of the matter. Even though you may be stressed out and have elevated emotions, it is important that you at least appear to be composed and calm.
By doing this, you will assure your manager that you understand the error of your ways. Next you should explain how you could have done things differently in that situation. Follow this up with a short apology and a commitment to not repeat the same mistake.
This interaction should be kept brief and very professional. The idea here is to address the error with your manager and allow yourself the opportunity to quickly act upon whatever measures are necessary to rectify the situation. You will have time later for a follow up discussion with your boss.
Take Immediate Corrective Action
Next, you should immediately set out to fix the situation to the best of your ability. This may involve putting in extra hours or weekend work. Whatever you do, do not wimp out, just get it done, and get it done right.
For now, you shouldn’t dwell on the mistake or get down on yourself. That will only waste energy and distract your mental focus from fixing the issue. You will have plenty of time later for self-reflection. So, for now, do what you can to push out any negative thoughts.
If you do not follow through and fix the mistake, you will not be able to buy yourself back into the good graces of your coworkers and management. So this is the time to step up your game and try to shine a bit. Extra effort will pay off here.
Time to Reflect
Once the dust has settled, it’s time to take a break for self-reflection. Try to remember that everyone screws up (it’s a fact of life), and you are no different. So, relax and ask yourself some questions, such as:
- How did this happen?
- What could you have done differently?
- What process lead to this mistake?
- How can this mistake be avoided in the future?
The goal isn’t to assign blame to yourself or others. This is an objective exercise to get to the heart of the situation and learn how to keep it from happening again. So don’t overthink it, and don’t get down on yourself.
Asking yourself these questions provides a framework for making changes to avoid making the same mistake again. It’ll also be the backbone for a follow up conversation with your manager.
Have a Follow Up Conversation
At this point, after some time has passed, it would be good to have a follow up conversation with your boss and/or co-workers to go over what you have learned. Be straight forward and keep it short and sweet, because enough time has already been wasted on the screwup. Also, don’t be dramatic or self-deprecate, this will lose you respect. If you feel like you can’t talk about it without tearing up, then perhaps you need more time to reflect.
A good approach would be to say something to the effect of “Hi, I just wanted to follow up with you real quick on (the screwup). I’ve thought about it a bit, and just wanted to get your thoughts…” At this point, proceed to summarize the screwup, how you feel it happened, and go over what changes you are making to avoid similar incidents in the future.
This is also a good opportunity to solicit feedback and request additional support if necessary. Again, keep it short and get back to work once you and your boss or co-workers seemingly have closure on the situation. The longer you drag this out, the more it will stick out in people’s minds later on.
Commit Yourself to Change
People are generally forgiving of screwups that happen once, or maybe even twice. So be sure to follow through on any changes you commit yourself to. Because if you don’t, this will be viewed as a character flaw and may hold you back in your career (or get you fired).
Committing to change can be difficult, and this is not simply a matter of willpower. You need to look at how you are going about your day and make changes to your daily process. Perhaps this involves setting calendar reminders, updating checklists, or researching management strategies.
So, take a good look at how you are conducting your business and make immediate changes if necessary.
Time to Move Forward
It’s time to stop dwelling on the problem and get back to business. In your mind, try to frame the screwup as a learning experience, and not as a failure. In this way, you will have drawn some value from the situation, and it won’t be a complete loss.
Most high performers have screwed up countless times. What separates these people from others is that they don’t allow these screw-ups to diminish their self-value and hold them back. So, you should do the same, and recognize this as a pivot point in your career that makes you stronger.
Some people may continue to hold this screw-up against you, but don’t allow this to keep you down. You can be gracious with these people and earn back trust and respect by demonstrating change through your actions. So allow this to motivate you and don’t waste any time trying to convince them with words.
Don’t Worry, You’ll Screw Up Again
Unless you are perfect (no one is), this won’t be the last time you screw up at work. And you are not the only one screwing up at work. Your coworkers and boss are screwing it up too and are dealing with their own periodic bouts of self-loathing and doubt. Which means you are not alone.
Don’t allow yourself to become less vigilant and complacent because of this, but keep this knowledge in the back of your mind and it will help you work through mistakes as they arise. Remember, you are human and there is no value in being hard on yourself.
In fact, there is quite a bit of value in making mistakes. For more on this, I would recommend reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Dr. Carol S. Dweck. In this book, she uses decades of research to explain the ideas of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. The book can be a bit repetitive in areas, but the overall message is valuable and life changing.
With that said, you shouldn’t strive to make mistakes. In fact, it’s generally better to learn from the mistakes of others. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find value in the mistakes you do make.