How to Handle Making a Mistake at Work

November 23, 2023

Learning to own up to mistakes can be a transformative skill for your life and your career.

Making a mistake can be an unpleasant experience.

Depending on how many people notice and react to that mistake, they can trigger a whole host of uncomfortable feelings, like shame, humiliation, embarrassment, regret, or anger.

Most knee-jerk reactions start with looking for a person to blame or a way to absolve yourself of the responsibility and justify whatever it was you did that led to that. Maybe some of those reactions are even right and another person did carry some of the responsibility that led to it.

Either way, there will be moments in your life where you decide to do something and then some weeks, months, or even years later, you realise exactly how much of a mistake it was. That’s just part of everyday life.

Making a mistake at work

Making mistakes at work can be more painful, at least in different ways.

It’s easy to feel like that mistake will sit with you forever, that all of your colleagues will perceive you as the person who did that thing that led to all these problems, or that you’ll never be able to redeem yourself in front of your coworkers. Maybe your hopes for that promotion have been dashed or that your teammates will never respect you in the same way again.

The moment you realise you made a terrible mistake, you’re hit with intense anxiety and fear.

It probably isn’t possible to move away from that feeling completely. There’s nothing wrong with regret, to the extent that it teaches you how to handle something differently in the future.

What is wrong is spending time and emotional energy on an outcome that’s already passed. Nothing you can do or feel in the moment will ever change what’s happened so all you can do is focus on what’s coming.

How to handle making mistakes at work

Think of the types of people that you admire and what characterises them. What type of personalities do they have? What do they do really well? When do you look at them and think “I wish I could be like that”?

A lot of people will start by listing characteristics like they’re inspirational, generous, decisive, honest and so on.

I almost always start with: They’re humble.

Humility is fundamentally about acknowledging that you can’t know the answers to everything, recognising that there will always be gaps in your own perspective and understanding of the world, and then acting that out. This is the characteristic that makes it possible for you to learn from other people when you’re feeling challenged. That’s ultimately how you can start making fewer and fewer mistakes, as you get wiser with experience. The whole point of this is to say: you can only learn from the experiences that you make if you’re actually able to recognise when you make a mistake.

It’s at times when things go wrong that you have the highest potential to grow and develop.

When everything’s going right, you can generally treat it as an affirmation that you know what to do. When things are going wrong, that’s when you know that there’s a lot you have to learn. Every mistake can be an opportunity, as long as you’re willing to grab onto it.

Owning up to making the mistake is the first step

At this point, you might be thinking: That sounds all good and well but why does owning up to it matter? Isn’t it enough if I recognise the mistake I made?

Being able to recognise that you’ve made a mistake is of course the first step, even if it’s just deep, deep down, between you and yourself.

What takes real self-confidence and character, though, is the part that comes afterwards: When you stand in front of the people who’ve been impacted by that mistake and take responsibility for it.

That’s one of those times where you can model the behaviour and the culture that you want to see from everyone around you. Mistakes can have any number of consequences and can impact the people you work with in many ways. It’s hard for everyone to really put it behind them if it feels unresolved and unaddressed. Being able to address it openly is the only way to do so.

Addressing things behind walls or with some kind of pretence doesn’t help at all. In fact, it’s only likely to lead to more frustration in the long run because your avoidance will be what everyone remembers you for.

You need to be able to own up to a mistake if you want others to respect you, if you want to show that you’ve actually learned from it, and if you want to continue building the kind of open, driven culture that most people thrive in. What happens between you and yourself is not visible to anyone else.

How can you do it anyway?

The most important question is:

How can you overcome that fear and make yourself do it anyway?

Some ways to chip away at that reluctance are:

  • Train yourself to self-reflect regularly. You want to get into the habit of learning from your experiences. The only way to do that is to regularly sit down and think about why things might have worked out well and when they don’t, why they didn’t. When you start doing that regularly, you will at least have an easier time recognising that when you make mistakes and then actually learning from them for the future.
  • Ask the people you work with for feedback, often, especially critical feedback. Even small pointers can give you hints for how to improve and where your blind spots are. When you’re able to train yourself out of getting defensive in response to critical feedback, you’ll eventually be able to transfer that to situations in which you make mistakes too. If you’re lucky, some of the feedback you’ll get will be about honest mistakes that you’ve made, so that can be a great practice run.
  • Hold yourself accountable. Tell someone else what you would do differently It doesn’t have to be someone at work or someone who was directly impacted by it at all. It can be just a friend who you know has no reason to judge or care all that much about your minor mistakes at work. Just saying the words “I wish I hadn’t done that, now I would handle it in a completely different way” out loud will make it more normal for you in future.
  • Address it. Try to say “I take complete responsibility” or “how this turned out is on me” and see what happens. In the majority of cases, you’ll find that it usually opens up fruitful and meaningful conversations that everyone walks away from a little wiser.


feedback, humble, humility, mistakes, overcoming, self-reflection

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