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The Art of Messing Up At Work

Unless you’re some kind of machine or cyborg, I can guarantee that you will mess up at work once in a while. Work screw-ups can be anything from a minor embarrassment or inconvenience to a huge faux pas or money-waster for your company. While of course you should always do everything in your power to avoid mistakes, you should still be prepared to handle the inevitable mistakes properly.

Being in possession of a faulty brain ““ one that moves faster than it should, one that skims over things with manic imprecision ““ I’m willing to admit that I probably make more mistakes than the average person. That’s why I decided to share with all you normal people how best to handle things when you screw something up at work. (I should note that this advice assumes the mistake is truly yours; I could write a whole other post on not letting someone else blame their errors on you.)

Own up to it. The ideal situation is for you to realize and address that you’ve made a boo-boo before anyone else does. This gives you the opportunity to approach the appropriate boss/supervisor/manager and tell them that you’ve messed up and you want to correct the problem. The reason I place this chronologically before “fix it” is because, unless you’re The Boss, you probably need to ask what corrective action your superior wants you to take.  It’s important to be as concise and straightforward about this step as possible; you’ll have time to apologize and give the “it won’t happen again” speech after you’ve fixed the mistake.

Fix it. Your mistake could be a typo you’ve made, a customer you’ve pissed off, or an important person you’ve given incorrect information to. Whatever it is, fix it as soon as you can. And, if you’re anything like me, you need to take the two extra goddamn seconds to make sure you’re doing it right the second time around. (Bosses frown upon a “correction” that is also incorrect. Trust.) If you have to skip lunch, stay late, or come in early, do it. This isn’t just about fixing the problem; it’s about you showing that you’re taking ownership and responsibility for something you’ve done.

Apologize. This is my least favorite step, but in the majority of occasions, it’s necessary. People really appreciate when someone doesn’t try to weasel out of an uncomfortable situation, and bosses tend to like employees that have a backbone. A well-crafted apology is really an important component of the recovery from a mistake at work. This is distinct from the initial step of owning up because it occurs after everything is fixed. You’ve reprinted the document, you’ve diffused the angry customer, you’ve sent out a corrective email to the appropriate parties. The error itself has been handled, but now you have to handle your boss, or whoever you answer to. (If you don’t have a boss, you can skip to the next step!) The key here is to be direct, and to keep things simple. My apologies usually have three components: reiteration of responsibility, acknowledgement of what was wasted or damaged, and indication that I will strive to avoid such mistakes in the future.

Move on. This is both internal and external. Externally: don’t apologize again. Don’t make self-deprecating jokes about the incident later. Don’t act like a little kid who’s in trouble. You need to project confidence and competence at work, and appearing to have been undone by one little screw-up isn’t going to do you any favors. On the internal side, try not to dwell on your mistake. It will probably ruin your day, but don’t let it ruin any more than that. Just try to do a little self-reflection to understand how and why you messed up, so that you truly can avoid such a mistake again. All you can do is work hard to make sure you minimize the impact of whatever misstep you’ve made. Side note: if you find that messing up at your job is the source of severe anxiety, you may need to re-examine your workplace.

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