Dealing with mistakes

So you’ve accidentally put salt in the client’s coffee. Or you’ve pressed the ‘delete everything’ button on your PC. In the words of the late, lamented Douglas Adams, Don’t Panic! Handling mistakes is as important an aspect of work experience as any.

‘Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new’, Albert Einstein once said. No-one gets through their career without making a mistake or two along the way – and those who think they do often present a bigger problem than the office Baldrick. James McCusker, Bothell economist and business consultant, says that people with a seemingly blameless record will have to see each mistake ‘accounted for and attributed to some (other) individual’. This prevents them being effective team players, whereas those who are willing to admit their mistakes are both more popular and more efficient workers.

The first rule, then, is honesty. It is important to own up to a mistake the moment it becomes apparent since cover-ups, however elaborate, solve little. Take the situation to your supervisor and present it as it is. Include some suggestions of how you can best resolve it. If you are a manager yourself, it is vital to foster an atmosphere in which mistakes can be discussed rationally and without censure; when communication pathways stay open it is easier to detect and deal with problems in their early stages. Dan West of Workplace Doctors suggests managers achieve this atmosphere by praising workers ‘not only for their successes but also for successes in dealing with their failures’.

DoBe up front. Notify your superior immediately

Tell your boss how bad you feel. By saying sorry and letting them know you’re aware of the seriousness of what you’ve done, they will know that you have learnt and will be more careful next time.


Hope it will go away by itself. The other people in your office are there to support you, not just to look pretty! Enlist the help of whoever you need to solve the problem.

Blame someone else. When the truth comes out you’ll have to take the rap anyway, but you’ll also look less trustworthy in the eyes of your peers and your boss.

Advising others who may also be affected by your error is another action that may seem painful at the time but will be seen as the courteous thing to do. However, publicising your mistake far and wide is not advisable. Telling those who need to know will show you are capable of acting responsibly; telling everyone else will prove the opposite. Roger Fulton, author of Common Sense Supervision, also advises people to document all details of the incident, such as how it happened, who you told and what you did about it. ‘This documentation will be of great value if you have to answer questions at a later date,’ says Fulton, as well as helping you to organise your response to the matter. Include times, dates and places as this will ‘tend to protect you, your subordinates, and the organisation.’

Finally – and most importantly – let go. As the Confucius saying goes, be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes. Dwelling on your slip-ups isn’t healthy; allow yourself to step out again with confidence, and don’t let past mistakes prevent you from taking risks in the future. ‘Mistakes are the portals of discovery,’ James Joyce once wrote. Look for the lessons you have learnt and the opportunities you have gained from your mistake.

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