Young woman with glasses and orange polo neck sitting at desk on phone recovering from mistake at work.
Image: © deagreez/

How to recover after making a mistake at work

26 Aug 2019

Drink some water and calm down. This will be fine. Just follow these steps.

So, you messed up. It happens. That isn’t just some empty platitude to sate your anxiety – you were never going to breeze through your entire career without dropping the ball in some respect at least once.

Assuming you didn’t commit a fire-able office (in which case, I’m very sorry but I absolutely cannot help you here) there a few ways that you can remedy the situation and ensure you move past it without casting a dark shadow over your entire career. Whether you upset a superior or caused something of an international incident, here is what you can do to recover from making a mistake at work.

Take a breath

Try to remind yourself that in most office jobs, mistakes are not life-or-death situations. You will get through this. Also, if you’re going to press forward in a constructive way and effectively do damage control, you need to return to a calm baseline.

If your brain is germinating worst-case scenario possibilities, it can be helpful to try and rationalise those hypothetical situations. Remind yourself that what you’re fearing is pretty unlikely to actually happen and that, even if it did, you have a contingency plan.

Assuming that you’ve already said your preliminary apologies and taken immediate action to redress the situation, if that is possible, don’t be afraid to take a breath before moving forward.

Don’t beat yourself up

You may be tempted to completely spiral in the wake of a large mistake and berate yourself incessantly, doling out constant and panicked apologies. Ultimately, as we have said, this probably isn’t a life-or-death situation, so you need to go a little easier on yourself.

Also, negative self-talk can instigate a vicious self-propagating cycle in which you make a mistake, are incredibly hard on yourself, feel bad, and then continue to make mistakes because you’re feeling down and unsure of yourself.

You’re obviously going to feel bad and may even want to have a bit of a wallow after work, but try to shake that feeling quickly. It’s easier said than done, but you can distract yourself by instead putting your energy into solutions.

Reflect on why it happened

Most of the origin stories of some of the most influential people in the world of business and beyond are peppered with major failures and setbacks – in fact, these setbacks tend to be retroactively mythologised once the person reaches dizzying heights of success.

Making a mistake at work is not necessarily a sign that you are soon to become a tech start-up millionaire, but it’s still worth trying to view your error more positively. This is a learning opportunity.

Ask yourself what went wrong and reflect on ways that you can ensure it doesn’t happen again. Some things are out of your control, but are there steps you could take to improve your time management? Could you pledge to be more cautious if your error was down to bad judgement? Think of how you can use this as an impetus to improve.

Is this mistake one of the many possible symptoms of burnout? Ask yourself, have you been taking care of yourself lately? Have you been putting yourself under a lot of pressure? If so, you may need to take some steps to address your health.

Earn trust

Your primary worry in the aftermath of a mistake is likely that you’ve damaged your professional reputation. It’s a valid fear, but the best way that you can remedy this is to simply move forward and pledge to do better.

If you consistently deliver good work and prove yourself to be reliable, in all likelihood the memory of your past error will melt away. Demonstrate that you have learned from your mistakes and make moves to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Done correctly, you could actually turn this mistake into a way to show off just how competent you really are.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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