How to handle your mistakes like a pro

No one knows better than a boss that everyone makes mistakes. But not everyone handles them the same way. When you make a mistake, your boss will be watching you closely and asking himself these questions:

Am I dealing with someone who:

  1. learns easily from mistakes or repeats them endlessly?
  2. tells the simple truth or creates confusion to hide behind?
  3. sincerely accepts responsibility or just tells me what I want to hear?
  4. really hears and understands me?

making mistakes at workYour boss will consider the cost of your mistakes to be part of his investment in you. It’s a cost of doing business. Your job when you report a mistake is to convince your supervisor that his investment is a good one. You can do that by following this checklist:

  1. report your mistakes early so your boss doesn’t find out about them from someone else
  2. apologize without assigning blame to others and without sounding defensive
  3. do whatever you can to correct your mistake and do it quickly
  4. show you thought about what led to your mistake
  5. summarize and say back to your boss his message to you, for ex: “I hear you saying that this was a costly mistake for the company at a time when…” and then
  6. commit to not making that mistake again and explain how you will avoid it

Fully accepting a mistake, making repairs and avoiding repetition is extremely difficult. Maybe one of the most difficult things in life. And that’s one of the few advantages you have in this situation — your boss knows how hard it is. So do it right and you’ll show what you’re made of. If you’re lucky, you may just come out ahead!

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104 comments…

  • avatar

    Evelyn Lozoya April 6, 2014, 11:57 pm

    This article caught my attention because making mistakes is the best part of life. At work of course some mistakes are costly and may cause you to lose your job (ex:health care field); However, for the most part at least for me when a mistake is made I get to reflect on what I could have changed and/or was appropriate in the situation. As the article states, “Maybe one of the most difficult things in life. And that’s one of the few advantages you have in this situation — your boss knows how hard it is. So do it right and you’ll show what you’re made of.” This statement specifically I feel holds most value; being honest, and admitting your wrong is the best part of personal-proffesional growth.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Creya Garbacik February 5, 2014, 2:26 pm

    I, too, recently made a mistake at work. I work in retail, and the store was having a very big sale. I was ringing customers out for a few hours and frantically tried to give them any assistance they needed. One customer asked if I could stop ringing her items as she was looking for her customer appreciation card. I only had a few items left so I presumed to finish up, scanning quickly. The customer got upset with me, and I replied very defensively. I had never been yelled at by a customer before! I realized right then and there that I should have apologized to the customer without letting my emotions in the way.

    I definitely learned from this mistake. It is easy to react far too quickly in a stressful situation. My boss sat down and talked with me, and we both agreed the situation was a mishap that could have happened to anyone. I agree that when making a mistake, one should do everything he can to fix it promptly and effectively! I committed to not make the mistake again and will surely be careful when interactions with customers get nerve-racking.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Adam Thompson November 16, 2013, 11:04 pm

    Few personal feelings in a work environment are worse than the feeling you get when you know you let your boss and coworkers down. Even when you’ve done what you can to make your mistake right you are still left remembering the mistake you made.

    I recently made a large mistake at work, and I still feel extremely bad for what my mistake cost the company. I work at a surveying firm and part of my job is collecting data points that are then used to create a map of the job site. It was my first time utilizing a method of collecting these points that led to my mistake. I had not done enough research or asked enough questions on how to use the instrument I was using and ended up collecting over 1000 bad data points. I thought everything was going well and that my boss was going to impressed with how quickly I had done the job site.

    When he downloaded the data and started looking at it he quickly realized something was wrong. The roads that I had surveyed had jagged edges and were overlapping in ways that are not even possible, my curbs were 10 feet tall, and I had somehow managed to collect points across the street without even going over there.

    My boss sat me down in his office, the next day, and showed me the map I had created. He asked how I collected the points and I admitted that I wasn’t quit sure what I was doing. He then said that my coworker and I had to go back and do the whole job over and that instead of the company making a profit on this job it was now a lose. Also we we’re supposed to start another job that day but that it would have to wait.

    I still think about this mistake everyday at work. But it has made me a better employee. Never again will I try something new at work without fully understanding every aspect of the technology and the proper execution.

    Reply
    • avatar

      Phillip Wachowiak January 3, 2014, 9:30 pm

      In some ways I am fortunate that I cannot hide mistakes at my job. My work is in a cancer lab at the university hospital, where I work with equipment and technologies that are worth thousands of dollars. More importantly, the specimens that we work with can never be acquired again. Any mistakes mean data that we lose and can never retrieve.

      These environments can be stressful, especially as as a sophomore learning many of these lab techniques for the first time. Of the many things I have learned, I can truly appreciate my boss’s advice that I ask as many questions as I need to.

      During a test run of one assay, I misunderstood my boss: she wanted me to run samples in duplicate, but one set would a heat bath and one wouldn’t. Not thinking, I put both sets in the heat bath. Although this didn’t ruin anything, we could not longer compare the two sets to gauge the quality of the assay. Luckily, I understood my mistake almost as soon as she mentioned it. so I told her I would stay later and re-do some of the samples.

      After a year of working in the same lab, I am proud that I have almost never made the same mistake twice. My goal is to address the problem immediately, and then understand it so that I do not repeat it again. Fortunately, my grasp of the lab has grown to the extent that not only am I making fewer mistakes, but I am asking fewer questions as well.

      Reply
  • avatar

    Brittany Simmons August 13, 2013, 12:36 am

    Sometime it is hard to handle certain situations like a professional, despite any type of game plan or level of preparedness that one may have. There are many people who feel like bringing there personal lives into the workplace, but not realizing that their job is not the home. We may or may not realize that it will soon affect our work as well as the coworkers around you everyday. When one makes a mistake sometimes it is best to apologize or when you catch your mistake it is best to tell your boss. Your boss your will look at you different and is more than likely to give you more respect. People are going to make mistakes, but it is up to that person to tell the truth. We should be able to grow from our mistakes, by writing down notes and listening to those who can further us in our careers. Meaning asking your boss actually what they are wanting from you and they are expecting from you.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Stephanie Gomez June 28, 2013, 9:59 pm

    This article really spoke to me because I have a job so I can relate. In my job, people make mistakes all the time and it’s normal because no one in perfect. Reporting something you did that was wrong should be told to your boss because I feel that they’d be more lenient on you because they value your honesty. When bosses find out what you did wrong rather than having you just tell them sometimes makes bosses feel like they can’t really trust you because you cant be honest about the issue and would rather hide it until it gets brought to light.

    Mistakes, as I wrote before, are bound to be made because no one is perfect, but of course, if one repeats the same mistake many times, bosses will have a hard time wanting to believe your apologies when they confront you about it. These guidelines mentioned in this article to learn from the mistake and apply the lesson aren’t just things you should do n the work force but also apply in your daily lives.

    Reply
    • avatar

      Stephanie Gomez June 28, 2013, 10:05 pm

      Actually, in my current job, there was a rule that said “no visitors at the desk”. It’s hard to not have friends visit only because the location of the desk I work at is in the middle of the university’s hall way where most of the events take place and most of the food venues are. My boss told all of us not to but I happened to be caught with a friend at the desk talking to me about her classes. Regardless of the conversation, my boss got upset and told me not to do it again. I apologized and since then I told my friends to meet me after work because I’m not allowed to have them at the desk. It’s sad because I want to be with them, but I have to do what my boss says because I don’t want her to think that I don’t listen to her or that I don’t learn from my mistakes.

      Reply
  • avatar

    Jahandar Joy April 26, 2013, 5:21 pm

    I have been working at the same company 7 years. In the past two months, I have made more mistakes due to having to work 16 hours plus a day because volume is so high. While I’ve caught my mistakes and re-sent corrections, someone went to my manager and told him how many mistakes I have been making, leaving out the fact that I have corrected them before proposals ever went out. My boss called me and we had a frank discussion. I have been bullied by this person who went to my manager many times before. He is a whiner and a cry baby and very quick to point fingers. What should I do? This most recent call to my manager has put into question whether I should even stay with a company – keeping in mind that I am now a vested employee.

    Reply
    • avatar

      Io October 15, 2013, 5:13 am

      What was the result of the discussion? Did your boss express greater confidence in you or less? I would start looking for another job in a low key way. Then I would start looking for an “angel,” a high level person in the organization, higher than your boss. You make contact off the record, such as a “chance” encounter in the restroom, break area, or by having some sort of errand that takes you to that person’s office. You let that person know how much you do for the company. Keep it all positive, no pointing fingers, but definitely blow your horn and offer to do a small task or run a small errand for that angel. Developing support high up offsets any negatives that may come in the future.

      Reply
  • avatar

    Ariela Edelman April 6, 2013, 6:56 am

    I once made a mistake that cost me my job. I was working with a medical administration company constructing schedules for doctors and nurses. One afternoon, hours before his shift, a physician’s assistant (PA) called me to say he was suffering from kidney stones and could not make his shift.

    I followed protocol like a professional. I contacted everyone on the roster in hopes of finding alternative coverage. I notified the physician that would be working without an assistant until I could locate one, and the medical director to alert him of the situation as well. The only person I did not tell was my boss.

    She had told me previously in the week not to disturb her on this particular day as she would be in meetings and taking important calls. I remembered this and decided not to disturb her.

    Unfortunately I could not find anyone to cover the PA. I called to tell him the bad news and that despite his pain he would have to go into work as there was no one available to work his shift. Since he was not answering his cellular phone I called his house and spoke to his son in hopes of reaching the PA. I was unable to reach him for the rest of the day and his shift went uncovered.

    What I did not know was that there was an agreement between my company and the hospital administration that guaranteed PA coverage every day, no matter what. Because I was unable to locate a substitute, we were in violation of our contract.

    Hospital administrators had contacted my boss and were very upset, and I was in a lot of trouble. My boss told me had I just interrupted her meeting she would have been able to alert her contacts in administration to the situation and perhaps smooth things over a bit. The next day I was fired. I am fairly certain it was a decision to save face with the hospital, but I’m still not sure how I could have handled it any better.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Jennyyy March 28, 2013, 9:41 pm

    In December of last year, I was hired as a student assistant in the school library. This was my first job, coming in as a college freshman. I never had much contact with my supervisor, since it was mostly student-run.

    But two months into my job, I was assigned a task to organize a study jam session for the students in preparation for midterms. This was my first project, and I received help from my fellow co-workers. When I faced a problem, I was sure to ask my supervisor. But two weeks before my event, I found out that my order for food at the event did not go through — this was my fault, as I put in the food order a couple of days late. For a couple of days, I tried to work my way around the problem. I contacted my co-workers and asked them the possibilities of fixing the problem that I caused. It was really hard for me to ask my supervisor for help, let alone admit my mistakes. Also, as a newly hired worked, I wanted him to have a good impression of me. In the end, I had to go to him for help and admit my mistake.

    This is something that I definitely have to work, and I need to remind myself that we all make mistakes and that I must learn from it.

    Reply
  • avatar

    John Rectenwald March 9, 2013, 12:23 am

    You can only learn from a mistake after you admit you’ve made it. As soon as you start blaming other people (or the universe itself) you distance yourself from any possible lesson. But if you courageously stand up and honestly say “This is my mistake and I am responsible” the possibilities for learning will move towards you. Admission of a mistake, even if only privately to yourself, makes learning possible by moving the focus away from blame assignment and towards understanding. Wise people admit their mistakes easily. They know progress accelerates when they do.

    This advice runs counter to the cultural assumptions we have about mistakes and failure, namely that they are shameful things. We’re taught in school, in our families, or at work to feel guilty about failure and to do whatever we can to avoid mistakes. This sense of shame combined with the inevitability of setbacks when attempting difficult things explains why many people give up on their goals: they’re not prepared for the mistakes and failures they’ll face on their way to what they want. What’s missing in many people’s beliefs about success is the fact that the more challenging the goal, the more frequent and difficult setbacks will be. The larger your ambitions, the more dependent you will be on your ability to overcome and learn from your mistakes.

    But for many reasons admitting mistakes is difficult. An implied value in many cultures is that our work represents us: if you fail a test, then you are a failure. If you make a mistake then you are a mistake (You may never have felt this way, but many people do. It explains the behavior of some of your high school or college friends). Like eggs, steak and other tasty things we are given letter grades (A, B, C, D and F) organizing us for someone else’s consumption: universities and employers evaluate young candidates on their grades, numbers based on scores from tests unforgiving to mistakes.

    For anyone than never discovers a deeper self-identity, based not on lack of mistakes but on courage, compassionate intelligence, commitment and creativity, life is a scary place made safe only by never getting into trouble, never breaking rules and never taking the risks that their hearts tell them they need to take.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Gail February 28, 2013, 7:12 pm

    I know that everyone makes mistakes and we are not all perfect but it is the stronger man/women that admits to it and is willing to stand up for their mistakes. I know I have made mistakes with companies I have worked for and I am willing to take owner ship for them. I work with people now that make mistakes, and you saw them do it, and they denied ever doing it. That to me shows they are afraid and unable to be taken seriously.

    Reply
  • avatar

    valaibrown@yahoo.com January 12, 2013, 12:06 am

    Making mistakes is common and human. We all make them everyday: as parents, as friends, as spouses and as employees. I just made the biggest blunder of my career and I’m quite proud of how I handled it this time around. I didn’t show up for a presentation without so much as a call to the agency that for which I was presenting; I actually hadn’t made any reminders for myself, but this was no excuse for my supervisor; however, because I was sincerely apologetic and let her know that I would make certain to keep all of my calendars updated with future events and commitments, it made the situation a little easier to handle. She was no longer in an offensive position, but a suggestive one instead.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Shruti December 25, 2012, 11:35 am

    I have following this method & i have learnt from my lessons. But the frequent number of mistakes I have made (though each one of them were different) this has left a question on my efficiency & quality of my work to my manager & seniors. I have noticed that gradually my mistakes shadowed all my achievements & plus points I have gained in the past 20 month in the current organisation.

    How do I tackle this atmosphere & maintain a positive relationship with my manager & stop myself from doing anymore mistakes?

    Reply
    • avatar

      Sachin March 10, 2013, 9:41 am

      Shruti ..you are not alone same case with me. I take too much effort and do the work wtih honesty and sincerity even though I do mistake.I accept my mistake and try to not to follow same in future but after some day i met with different mistake….I don’t know why it happens????

      Reply
  • avatar

    Sully December 5, 2012, 9:26 pm

    This idea is something that may not be easy to address, but is crucial in the success of management and maintaining a productive team.

    Reply
  • avatar

    sethturner44 September 24, 2012, 4:53 pm

    As hard as we try to not commit these, we fail in the process. Mistakes happen. Period. I’ve always thought the aftermath of a mistake is what defines us. Me? I own it and suffer the consequences. Integrity is more important that pride.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Valerie September 11, 2012, 3:19 am

    Great advice! We all have made mistakes at work, some more costly than others. The temptation to hide them and hope they aren’t discovered is great, but it will usually come back to bite you. I’ve found that admitting them and apologizing, if necessary, are good. It also helps if you have a possible solution ready to present at the same time. :)

    Reply
  • avatar

    Joanna Silvestri September 1, 2012, 12:55 am

    I totally agree with the idea of learning from mistakes. Indeed, I believe that life goes by in a trial-and-error basis. The only real fact is that no one is born wise, thus everyone has to go to a process on acknowledgment, learning little by little until becoming what desired.
    A person without mistakes is simply not a real person and I believe that the better and must unforgettable lessons from life are those which come from one’s personal experiences and errors. Therefore, the more ones learn from each mistake, the less changes are that it will happen again, and if it does, one can only learn even more.

    Reply
  • avatar

    mona August 31, 2012, 2:49 pm

    Today someone from our unit informed another unit that they input some data wrongly and asked them to revise them. They refused to acknowledge or accept the responsibility and this small matter escalate from a junior staff, to his snr, to his mgr and snr mgr. After spending hours discussing and cracking their head, instead of doing something constructive and resolving the issue, they shoot email to push the blame to us and it even go to the director level. I believe in integrity and admitting one mistake. All these year, i stick to it and this never fail.I do not need to cook up excuses to cover mistake. Like in today case, no matter what they claimed and said, i do not need to prove otherwise because the fact is the data are entered wrongly. They tried to cover their mistake and push away responsibility and ended up contradicting themselves. When the leader is not doing the right thing and setting a bad example, his people follow. Very sadly this is what happening in that unit. All new recruit ended up with all these bad habits and wrong value. I use this example to show my team the importance of integrity and that one should not be afraid to admit one mistake and to learn from it. When you try to cover it with excuses, you will end up with having to cover the excuses as well. Only truth is foolproof.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Shannon C. August 30, 2012, 4:31 pm

    I consider myself a perfectionist and the thought of making a mistake shakes me to my core. I know I make them, but I would prefer I didn’t. The greatest lesson I have as a perfectionist is to know that making a mistake is a learning experience. No one is perfect and now when I make mistakes I put it into perspective and use it for what it was: an opportunity to learn and grow.

    I currently work as a server in the restaurant business. I have worked in this industry for many years. My first job as a server was at a local family owned restaurant and on my second day I made the mistake of oreding the wrong entree for a table of three. The owner of the restaurant screamed, yelled and humiliated me in front of the entire kitchen staff. In my hysterical crying at the time, I vowed to never make a mistake there again. Needless to say, I did not work there much longer.

    My next job is the one I am currently at and my boss here is completely different. My current boss does not yell, scream or berate any employees. I was so frightened when I made my first mistake but was shocked when he spoke calmly to me. He asked what happened, I told the truth, explained what I did wrong and then explained a way i could keep from making the future mistake. My current job and boss taught me that I didn’t need to be afraid of the mistakes and consequences, just that I needed to face them head on.

    Many, many mistakes and years later, I have learned that I will make mistakes but I admit to them and use them as a lesson to be learned. I often am able to rectify a mistake on my own without my boss, but i always tell him when a mistake and a correction was made. I am also honest with customers when I make a mistake. Most appreciate my honesty and are very understanding as long as I am honest and make necessary corrections. When fellow employees make a mistake, I remind them that we all do it and just learn from it.

    Reply
  • avatar

    larisamarenco001 August 19, 2012, 12:15 am

    I currently work as a real estate agent and basically don’t have a boss. However, I do have my clients and they demand professionalism, knowledge and experience.

    Even though we are all human beings and it is in human nature to make mistakes, it is very difficult to ackowlege it and accept it.

    When I was writing my first contract I didn’t know what one of the paragraphs meant and just made something out when my buyers asked me about it. The next day I found out that what I said was complete nonsence. My broker advised me to call the clients right away and tell them simply the truth: that I am a new agent and didn’t know what that paragraph meant.

    I have to admit that was the best advise I received. My buyers appreciated it and respected my honesty. In the end we successfully closed.

    I think that if new professionals like myself follow the solutions on how to handle mistakes described in this article they will be able to achieve a lot in their careers.

    Reply
  • avatar

    larisamarenco001 August 18, 2012, 11:58 pm

    Whatever the case I ultimately agree that it is very important to take responsibilities for your own mistakes, nothing looks worse than trying to hide behind someone’s back. Furthermore, if you do blame it on someone, your boss will find out whose fault it is anyways and in the end you might lose your job. From my point of view, solutions described in this article are on point and young professional like myself should have it handy when starting a career,

    Reply
  • avatar

    Sarah Bermudez Caudill August 16, 2012, 9:00 pm

    Everyone makes mistakes in their respective career fields. However, you can determine a great person from an average person by their reaction to their mistake. I have learned that the key to not making a mistake twice is to take good notes. I use an excel spreadsheet and I review it periodically to remind myself of lessons learned in the past so as to not repeat those in the future.

    Reply
  • avatar

    maunaloa August 15, 2012, 5:14 am

    I started a job in a field I have never worked before and my new boss HATES mistakes. Naturally while I am learning I am making a few mistakes here and there, but always try my best not to make any mistakes. Nothing is more embarrassing then having your new boss catch a mistake you made that you were not aware of. Last week I had told him what caused me to make a mistake and informed him that I would be making sure to watch for the problem in the future. I smiled when I read that you should do this. But what do you do when they do not care to hear it? I want to prove to my boss that he made the right choice by hiring me. Mistakes are embarrassing and can be cost the business money but sometimes they cannot be avoided 100%. I have to tell myself that it isn’t a mistake if you did not know better because you were not informed it was just a learning curve. I think the most important thing is to not dwell on your mistakes just make sure that you learn from them.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Whittney VanCleave August 15, 2012, 4:33 am

    I found this article to be surprisingly informative. Don’t get me wrong, I did not think you were a bad writer before I read this. However, most of these ‘how to’ articles are filled with common sense information. However, this article stands above its cousins. I found the information very useful, and I will definitely apply it to my work place.

    My parents have worked all of their lives and they always told me whether it is just a part-time job, a volunteer job, or your career, if you agreed to work for someone, do just that. Work for them. I am working my way through college and I have come across a lot of people that do only what is necessary to get a paycheck. I love that this article gives tips on how to be great. It is like you said, you need to have a good relationship with any boss because they could be a reference for your dream job.

    I liked the ‘how to handle your mistakes like a pro’ section. I have definitely learned that the best way to handle a mistake is to own up to it. Tell your boss as soon as possible, and do not try to sugar coat it. Its best to just say, “I know it was my fault, but it will not happen again.” The coworkers I have had that try to cover it up or blame someone else were not my coworkers for long.

    Thanks for a great article.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Dielande August 11, 2012, 3:58 pm

    In March of this year I was elected as President of a non-profit organization at my University. Although my presidency will not be effective until August 2012 I felt it was my responsibility to get started early on.

    Being prepared is something I feel prevents mistakes from happening. So as I began making decisions and assigning duties to my executive board I realized that if information isn’t relied properly then people can become confused and misunderstand what is expected of them.

    I also realized that if I go about completing tasks that aren’t under my leadership position I get a better idea of what the task is asking from others. Successfully taking action and completing a diverse number duties has helped me explain clearly what a board member needs to consider when taking action themselves.

    Not being prepared is just a way of opening a bag full of mistakes. Understanding completely what a tasks expectations are is something everyone should consider. If the boss/leader can’t help you with this understanding then who can??

    Reply

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In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at LatPro.com. Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of JustJobs.com. He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.

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