Updated: Feb 10, 2021
Some people say you shouldn’t run away from mistakes. I’d take it one step further. Don’t run away from your mistakes—walk right up to them, introduce yourself, and buy them a drink.
Everyone makes mistakes at work. Everyone. Few are un-fixable or career-ending (with a few, notable, exceptions). In fact, mistakes are a tremendous opportunity to practice and demonstrate what the social psychologists are calling “grit,” which is a trendy word for what your grandma called “sticktoitiveness.” Remember, mistakes are just challenges we create for ourselves. If you depersonalize them, remove their emotional weight, and think of them the same way you’d think of any other bump in the road, you can transform mistakes into opportunities for future success.
Next time you’re about to freak out about a mistake you made at work, don’t panic, know that we’ve all been there, and try out a few of these tips.
Prioritize the fix. Resist the urge to wallow, talk out your feelings with a friend or trusted coworker, or wonder what this means for your next performance review. Panic wastes valuable time and energy you need to move forward. If it’s in your power to right the wrong, do so immediately.
Skip the shame. If it’s a real doozy of a mistake, the last thing your colleagues or boss want to have to worry about is your emotional health. They don’t want to work with a person who shows an inappropriate amount of shame and guilt over a mistake. Instead, most people want a coworker who can apologize and then move on to right the wrong. So keep the groveling to a minimum. A few heartfelt words—“I made a mistake, and I’m sorry. Here’s how I think we can fix it.”—should be the sum total of your expressions of regret, shame, and guilt.
Fixes = systems. The best fix is rarely, “I will pay closer attention in the future” or the equally useless “I won’t let it happen again” (how?). Take the burden off yourself and put it into a written set of protocols for approvals, a better method for managing information, or a checklist. In his excellent book The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande describes how simply creating and religiously using checklists—like the surgery checklists that many hospitals now use to prevent catastrophic mistakes like amputating the wrong leg—slashes the rate of mistakes in many fields. Your new system might be something that your entire department or organization should adopt, or it might be a spreadsheet or checklist just for you to use.
Memorialize it. Here’s another place where mistakes at work can be a blessing in disguise. You’ve made a mistake. You’ve fixed it. Now, ugh, you have to write the memo about what happened and how you are changing procedures so it never happens again. No, wait, you get to write that memo. Stop thinking of yourself as the screwer-upper and start thinking of yourself as the problem solver. Congratulate yourself on fixing your mistake, and make sure there’s a written record of the process and next steps.