Chances are, you’ve made a mistake at work at some point in your professional life. And as someone who has made my fair share of errors, I believe that you can use your mistakes to become better at your job, and even strengthen your relationships at work.
The world we live in demands creativity and agility in the face of change. To keep up with technology, globalization, and all of the forces that are driving change in our world, we need to be moving quickly, thinking creatively, and trying new things that won’t always work out. Simply put, if you’re not making mistakes from time to time, you’re likely not doing the work that a modern workplace demands.
How To Turn A Mistake Into An Asset
I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes at work. However, a mistake has rarely put me in bad standing with a manager or leader—for the most part I’ve been able to turn my mistakes into assets by following these four steps.
Admit you made a mistake, and do it immediately. In the very second that you think you could have had a hand in something going sideways, put your hand up and say, “maybe this is my fault.”
I’ve been blessed (and also cursed) with a tendency for self-depreciation, which means this step of the process comes naturally to me. I don’t have a poker face, and I blurt things out. It’s had mixed results in my personal life, but professionally, this part of my personality has served me well.
Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, I highly recommend that you make a practice of never trying to cover up mistakes at work. Even if it’s unlikely that anyone will notice your error, or owning up makes you accountable for the team’s failing, fess up and get it out into the open immediately. Feeling ashamed, or being anxious that someone is going to find your mistake, is no way to go through the day.
Drop everything else, and get to work resolving your mistake. Grab the people who can help you resolve the issue, and get to work. Triple check everything.
Depending on the nature of the mistake, this step can range anywhere from double-checking a document, to a series of conversations about what went wrong that lead to new workflows and processes. And of course, some mistakes can’t be fixed: you can’t take back an email that went out with a broken link, or get a second chance at a first impression when a product demo fails for an important new client. In those cases, this step means that you need to go back and look at what went wrong, and put some safeguards in place against it happening again.
When something has gone wrong, and you’re pretty sure it’s your fault, say you’re sorry. A mistake made at work likely means that you’ve taken unexpected time from other people’s schedules, or created headaches for others. Take the time to acknowledge that.
In this step, it’s critical that you make sure that your apology is centered on the people affected by your error, and not on how bad you feel, or on the extenuating circumstances that led to your error. An apology should not be a list of excuses.
Unfortunately, we’ve recently seen some examples of what an “apology” should not be (generally making it about the person doing the apologizing, not the people who were hurt or affected). Make your apology about the people who are actually affected by your mistake, and not yourself, and you’ll be fine.
Don’t let it happen again.
Embrace Graceful Failure
A mistake can be a gift: it can shine a light on a blind spot, reveal flaws in the systems you work with, and create opportunities for learning. It should not be wasted. Learn the lesson, and be extra careful going forward that you don’t make the same mistake twice.
This step is especially helpful for ensuring that you develop a productive relationship with your manager or team—you don’t want to be the person who makes careless mistakes, but if you’re viewed as someone who takes their mistakes seriously, it means that you won’t be damaging your reputation the next time you (inevitably) make a mistake.
All of these steps are much, much easier if you factor in, “I messed up,” as a potential reason for the mistake. Admit to what you don’t know. Don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that it must be someone else’s fault.
Approach your work with humility—if you’re getting defensive or trying to point fingers, your leaders and team members will see that, and learn not to trust you.
As the saying goes, don’t manufacture a crisis, but don’t waste one either. Using mistakes as a learning opportunity can help you build relationships, and develop a reputation as someone who cares about their work.
Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash