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January 19, 2016

How Do You Handle Mistakes at Work?

Keith Jackson


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Chance are, you've felt that sudden knot in your stomach when you realize you have made a mistake at work.

If you were lucky, it may have been just a minor "blooper" that had no real consequences and you fixed it quickly, perhaps before anyone else had even noticed. Or it might have been a major "howler" that cost your organization both money and reputation. Sometimes you can make a gaffe that leaves you with "egg on your face" and, once you've had your wrist slapped, everyone can laugh about it later.

I've experienced that dreaded feeling in my stomach on more than one occasion. The worst times were when I was blissfully unaware of my errors until someone very important and very angry brought it to my attention.

For example, I was working for a London stockbroking firm when a client placed an order to sell a significant number of shares in a company. I have no idea how it happened – although I was later presented with the painful evidence that it was indeed my doing – but, instead of facilitating the sale, I bought a significant number of shares in a completely different company. My chances of an executive corner office with a panoramic view of the London skyline receded a little at that point! Those "rogue" shares had to be sold, and we still had to sell our client's stock. The severity of my "talking to" was mitigated by the fact that a shift in market prices meant my firm sold the wrongly purchased shares for more than it paid for them, and our client got a higher price for the shares than he would have got, had I carried out his wishes successfully and diligently the day before! My mistake was ultimately profitable for all involved, except me. Shortly afterwards, I left the world of high finance with a far-from-glowing reference!

When I have realized I've messed up, I nearly always "fess up" to it, try to put it right, deal with any unpleasant fallout or consequences, and try not to repeat the same mistake again.

And, having asked our followers and friends on social media, "What do you do when you make mistakes at work?", it seems that honesty is the best policy.

On Twitter, Gabriella Khorasanee (@MissGDK) had this short and sweet tip: "Admit it and fix it." Her view was praised by Yolande Conradie (@Yolande_MT), who replied, "That's the best principle. Cover ups and lies only lead to more mistakes."

Muneer Babar (@muneerbabar) said he would, "accept my mistake, learn from it and if possible propose a solution." Midgie Thompson (@Midgie_MT) agreed, saying, "Accepting when we are wrong takes courage to admit, and then be willing to change or remedy."

Other contributors' comments included:

  • Ahmed Al Saadi (@Alsaadi_Ahmedsh): "I would investigate the reasons that led to that mistake and avoid them in the future."

  • Lizzy (@OoshOne): "Be honest, apologize, and use it as an opportunity to learn."

  • Nicki (@MissBlairSaid): "Acknowledge it, apologize, see what i can do to rectify the situation and reflect for future reference." Yolande added, "I think the reflect part is very important. It's a great aid in preventing a repeat."

  • Shadreck Masedewe, on Facebook: "STOP – Stop Think Observe Plan."

Thank you to everyone who replied. We are always grateful for your input, and your comments are welcome, below.

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8 comments on “How Do You Handle Mistakes at Work?”

  1. Accepting mistake shows you have courage of accepting the things went wrong and set an example to others which leads to the learning and finding the solutions.

  2. I suppose it would to an extent depend on the type of mistake and how much it cost the company. About certain mistakes I would feel the same - especially if it's something that a person should be competent in. Other times it may truly be an honest mistake and a massive learning curve - that doesn't mean that management will be happy about it.

  3. I agree with everybody whose approach would be to apologise, and take every possible action to rectify the situation, and hopefully minimise the impact. I would also start to take extra care to avoid any recurrence!

  4. Absolutely the best course is when you mess up, fess up. We are all human and we all make mistakes. Lies and coverups will only create distrust and that is a fatal disease.

  5. Hello there,
    In Most of the Hotels there is lots of mistakes on the accounting of RECEIVABLES, as time on time, there is accumulation of debtors, and they dont get squared off..
    I am working on finding a way of reconcillation of these Party debtors on weekly / fortnightly, so they are tracked on regular basis.

    1. I really like the fact that you're not accepting the mistakes as how it is, but that you're trying to make a plan or work out a system to minimize these mistakes. Well done!

  6. All that sounds so good, and I agree that honesty and rectifying a mistake is the way to go. But… we live in a real world where mistakes are seldom tolerated nor forgiven. The fear of failure can paralyze talented people, so great leaders will create an atmosphere where one can realistically grow and learn from mistakes. .

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