The “Just Right” Reaction When You Mess Up At Work

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You’re tackling a typical day at the office, juggling meetings, phone calls, and that hyperactive inbox of yours, when suddenly it hits you — the worst possible feeling to have at work. Your heart drops, your face goes cold, and your adrenaline kicks in. You’ve just realized you’ve made a mistake.

Mistakes are bound to happen, but whether you make a minor glitch or a major mess-up, how you react (beyond the choice words that run through your head) matters much more than what you did.

Unfortunately, our instincts generally throw us to either side of a wide spectrum. On one end, you may act too quickly—saying too much and overcomplicating a situation in your attempts to recover quickly. On the other, you may be tempted to hastily cover up what happened and look for ways to defend yourself. While seeking help and self-preservation are both natural, neither extreme is the most effective when it comes to owning up to a mistake at work.

So, how do you show that you’re sorry and concerned, while also portraying confidence and poise? Not too hot, not too cold—read on for tips on owning up to a mistake at work just right.

Situation #1: Too Hot

As quickly as it happened, Amy is out the door and telling anyone she encounters that she has made a big mistake and needs help. “I’m so sorry,” she repeats dramatically, over and over, convinced that her spelling error means the end of the business.

This approach poses several problems. To Amy, she’s showing remorse and that she cares, but to everyone else, she’s demonstrating that she’s not able to handle tough situations. (And frankly, she’s being annoying.)

What’s more, she’s ultimately wasting everyone’s time — and thus, company money. Look at it this way: If you’re a consultant, lawyer, or working at an agency, you’re trained to think about your time as billable (doing work that makes money for the firm) versus non-billable. By apologizing and stressing everyone else out versus taking actionable steps to fix the problem, Amy is taking everyone away from that billable work.

Situation #2: Too Cold

Bob realized he made a mistake yesterday — and has yet to react simply because he doesn’t want to look bad. When someone else finally realizes his mistake, he makes a weak excuse and brushes the issue aside like it’s no big deal. To Bob, he’s mitigating the situation, making sure no one around him panics, and is protecting his reputation — but to everyone else, he’s insincere and doesn’t care about his job.

Truth be told, Bob’s reaction is common: Our brains are predisposed to protect our egos from blame when we mess up (this article on Art of Manliness does a good job explaining why it is naturally so hard to own up to our mistakes). But by giving into this instinct—and by not taking action on your mistake or reaching out to others who could help you mitigate it—you not only give co-workers the impression that you don’t care, you risk not resolving the situation and making it worse over time.

Situation #3: Just Right

Just like Goldilocks and her porridge, somewhere in the middle is just right when owning up to a mistake.

Here’s your game plan: Upon realizing your error, don’t react right away. Instead, take a deep breath and analyze possible solutions. If the mistake is something that you can address, act immediately. For example, if you pushed send on a press release that was supposed to be on hold until tomorrow, call the distribution company right away and see if you can catch it before it goes live.

If your mistake isn’t retractable (or your attempt at retracting would cause more harm than good), devise a couple solutions to the problem before even stepping away from your computer. Decide who the most appropriate person to talk to would be, and approach that person (and only that person) with a clear, concise description of what happened. Tell her you’d appreciate her help and understand you’re utilizing her valuable time. Apologize — once — and then present your solutions. The less time you spend hemming and hawing and the more quickly you fix the mistake, the more your boss will see you as someone who does well under pressure and cares about the success of the company.

Remember, everyone makes mistakes, and as awful as it feels when it happens, you will recover and your co-workers will move on. In fact, if handled right, a mistake can do more to impress those around you than to tarnish their view of your work.

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