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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Big Mistake? Recover From a Slip-Up With Grace

Mistakes happen to everyone, and at some point, it's bound to be your turn. But what do you do when you realize you’ve made a serious error? Panic? Hide somewhere no one can find you? Hang your head in shame for the next month?

No, no, and no. Whether you accidentally hit “reply” instead of “forward” or booked yourself on a flight that arrives the day after the big meeting, the best thing you can do is to handle your error with professionalism and grace. Here’s how to handle a slip-up at work—and, more importantly, how to prevent it from happening next time.

1. Don’t Cover it Up

Whether you spot your own slip-up or someone else brings it to your attention, there’s only one thing to do when the mistake is discovered: own up. Honesty goes a long way, but trying to cover it up—or worse, blaming someone else—will usually come back to bite you. (Especially when it comes to email gaffes—there’s always a written record somewhere.)

And the sooner you take action, the better: Dragging your feet probably won’t fix things, but taking action immediately might. (Deleted an important file? Your IT department may be able to recover it the same day, but you might not have that luxury next week.)

2. Make a Game Plan

If it’s your mistake, it’s your job to figure out how to fix it, too. First, decide who you need to notify. If you’ve misspelled a donor’s name in an event program, you’ll need to call the designer and printer—and, worst case scenario, the donor. Accidentally emailed confidential information to your entire address book? You might (gulp) need the assistance of your legal department.

Once you've drafted your need-to-know list, come up with a solution (or two or three) to propose to your boss. In most cases, you shouldn’t move forward until you’ve consulted her—depending on the severity of your error, she may want to handle it differently (or herself). Plus, she may be able to give you advice on mitigating the situation. But having a well thought-out plan to offer demonstrates that you’re not taking the error lightly.

3. Come Clean

Remain calm, collected, and professional as you tell your boss or others about the mistake you made, and how you plan to address the problem. Bursting into tears doesn’t work when you get pulled over, and it won’t work in the office, either. Instead, try saying, “I’ve made a mistake. Here’s why it happened, and here’s what I think I should do to fix it.” Don't beg for forgiveness. Rather, give the facts, apologize (once!), and then work hard to fix the problem.

More importantly, describe how you'll avoid making a similar mistake in the future. Maybe you’ll have someone else proof your memos before you distribute them, or you’ll make sure to leave several hours of extra time when you’re delivering time-sensitive items to a vendor.

4. Learn from Your Mistakes

The best way to deal with a mistake? Prevent it from happening again. Regularly connecting with your boss or project leader to make sure you have complete information will minimize the chances that something will go wrong in the first place. Also, stay organized. The more detailed you are, the lower the chances that something will slip through the cracks. Create a task list or other project management system—whatever helps you to stay on track with details, deadlines, and duties.

It’s also fact of life that you make more mistakes when you’re sleep-deprived and you’re running on empty. So make an effort to operate at your best: Get to work well-rested, and keep your brain sharp by staying well fed throughout the day.

You’re expected to do a good job, but you’re not going to be perfect (not all the time, at least!). Everyone makes mistakes—and the best you can do is to handle them with grace, and learn from them.

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