Your Foolproof Guide to Moving on After You Messed Up at Work
Maybe you forgot to attach a document to your email before hitting send. Oops!
Maybe your workplace snafu was a little bigger than that—a costly mistake that damaged your employer’s earnings, credibility, or public image.
Or maybe you made a mistake that simply made you seem like a complete idiot, like double-booking VIP clients, so they both showed up to your office’s reception area to meet with you at the exact same time. (Yes—that happened to me!)
Feeling embarrassed? Ashamed? Worried that your professional credibility is hanging by a thread? Take a deep breath. You’re going to get through this—and maybe even solidify your reputation as a quick-thinking problem solver in the process.
Here’s your seven-step recovery plan.
Step 1: Allow Yourself to Feel Awful About it (But Not for Too Long)
In response to a stressful scenario, like making a mistake at work, it’s natural to feel frustrated, embarrassed, or even distressed for, say, 10-15 seconds. But ideally, after 15 seconds, the feeling should pass. A tiny shadow of negativity may linger, but in general, you get over the snafu.
However, sometimes—for all kinds of reasons—emotions get “stuck,” and instead of dissipating after a few seconds, they keeping building and building, like steam swirling inside a kettle.
When that happens, it’s important to release that pent-up steam in a healthy manner and as soon as possible—by, for instance, going for a quick jog around the block, taking a kickboxing class, journaling in your diary, or talking it out with a therapist, coach, or friend who can give you a sense of perspective. Which brings me to:
Step 2: Keep Things in Perspective
It can be difficult to maintain a sense of perspective when you’re upset with yourself, but try to make sure your emotional response is proportional to the blunder you made.
With very few exceptions—like if you’re a pilot, surgeon, or military personnel—making an error at work is not a life-or-death situation, and most mistakes can be resolved or corrected right away.
So you uploaded the wrong file, double-booked an important meeting, showed up late for a presentation, or included a typo in an important report. You’re alive. No one was mortally wounded. On the freeway of life, this is a parking ticket, not a multiple car pile-up.
A friend of mine who is a professional copywriter once said, “I love my work because nobody dies if I’m not witty enough with a tagline. I do my best, but ultimately, it’s words on a page or a screen. It’s not life or death!”
Step 3: Confront Your Worst-Case Scenario—Then Let it Go
In life, there certainly are consequences for mistakes. But sometimes, your mind exaggerates and distorts the potential consequences for your mistake, sending you into a state of agony and stressing you out, which, ironically, can cause you to make more errors in the future.
It can be helpful to confront your personal worst-case scenario—whatever that may be—so that you can make peace with it and move on.
You might say to yourself, “OK, I goofed up. And you know what? Maybe I will get fired. It’s highly unlikely, because it’s very costly and time-intensive for employers to replace great employees and I usually do a terrific job. But if that happens? I will survive. I am resourceful and creative and I won’t let anything—not even a job loss—derail my life, my health, or my happiness.”
Step 4: Apologize if You Need to—But Don’t Overdo It
If you need to apologize for your goof, do it swiftly and briefly: “Hi Jim, I made a mistake and I’m working on correcting it ASAP.”
Often, that’s the only sentence you need to say.
No excuses. No justifications. No verbally flogging yourself. Just acknowledge the error and move on. Honestly, people are usually so preoccupied with their own goals, projects, and issues, they’ve probably forgotten all about whatever you did wrong by the time you reach this step!
Step 5: Create a Game Plan for Next Time
Evaluate what you need to do differently next time to make sure this same mistake doesn’t happen again. Were you multi-tasking beyond your ability, with dozens of tabs open on your browser? Were you rushing too fast to hit a deadline, missing important details in the process?
If you find an issue that you can address, do so. And for extra measure, if you feel that it would be beneficial to tell your boss about how you’re going to prevent mistakes in the future, do that, too.
Step 6: Take Better Care of Yourself
Most Americans are sleep deprived, and persistent sleep deprivation will eventually catch up with you—in the form of impaired attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. Some studies indicate that working while sleepy is just as bad as working while under the influence of alcohol.
Aside from sleepiness, poor nutrition, dehydration, sitting too long in your chair, and lack of exercise can all contribute to poor performance at work. So if you want to avoid making mistakes in the future, get serious about your physical wellbeing.
Start treating yourself like a professional athlete—sleep, train, work, fuel, sleep, and repeat—and you might notice the less brain fog, more clarity, and fewer errors.
Step 7: Earn Back Trust Through Your Actions—Not Just Your Words
The best way to earn people’s trust and admiration is to consistently deliver great work. Period. Do that, and occasional bouts of forgetfulness or slip-ups here and there are likely to be quickly forgiven—and forgotten.
Bottom line: One mistake—even a big one—does not have to derail your life or career.
President Bill Clinton was publicly shamed for infidelity. He went on to receive the UN Citizen of the World Award a few years later in honor of his human rights work and contribution to the planet.
Several of Henry Ford’s early business ventures failed—multiple times!—before he founded the successful Ford Motor Company.
Ever hear of Akio Morita? His first invention was a terrible rice cooker that burned rice, which, obviously, no one wanted. He sold less than 100 of them. That mistake didn’t stop him from trying to improve, though. He kept working and eventually his little gadget company—Sony—became a household name.
The point is, you can fail—even very publicly and dramatically—and still reinvent yourself, move past the mistake, and create a rich, amazing, successful life.
So, if you’re still mentally thrashing yourself about the document you forgot to attach to
that email the other week, let it go. You are going to be just fine.
Photo of medical bag courtesy of Shutterstock.
Dr. Suzanne Gelb is a psychologist, life coach and attorney. She believes that it is never too late to become the person you want to be—and that with enough courage and self-respect, it is always possible upgrade your career, step into a new role, or launch the business of your dreams. Her insights have been featured on over 200 radio programs, 200 TV interviews and online at Time, Forbes, Newsweek, Mashable, Business Insider, NBC's Today, and The Huffington Post. Her writings on leadership, empowerment and productivity can be found at DrSuzanneGelb.com. Book one-on-one coaching sessions with Suzanne on The Muse's Coach Connect.More from this Author