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Do This Immediately After Messing Up To Regain Your Boss’s Trust Fast

This step-by-step action plan will help get you out of the doghouse–and on the right track going forward–after a major work screwup.

Do This Immediately After Messing Up To Regain Your Boss’s Trust Fast
[Photo: Hans Neleman/Getty]

You’re sitting there at your desk with a pit in your stomach. You know you really blew it–and your boss does, too. Maybe you forgot to follow up with an important client and they chose someone else’s proposal. Maybe you didn’t prepare the right documents in time for a super-important meeting. Or a careless typo you made on a spreadsheet or purchase order led to an expensive mistake.

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Whatever it is, your boss isn’t happy. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t need to start job-searching. In fact, there are a few simple steps you can take right away to rebuild the trust you’ve lost–as quickly as humanly possible. Here’s what to do and when to do it.

Right Away: Fess Up

Admit your mistake as soon as it comes to light. Don’t wait around for the error to be found out, in the hope that maybe it simply won’t. By owning up to the misstep proactively, your boss will be more confident that you’ll come forward in the future whenever there’s a problem. That creates trust. After all, error is inevitable. You’ll never get through your entire career without making any mistakes. And chances are, your boss has made a few mistakes over the years as well.

The problem is that most of us aren’t trained to deal with mistakes all that effectively. From a young age, we notice that the people who get the best grades in school are the ones who make the fewest mistakes on tests and assignments. So you’ve probably learned how to argue with instructors about why your efforts were actually deserving of credit rather than finding ways to correct whatever you’ve done. It can be tough to shake this impulse even after you’ve spent years in the workforce.

Admitting your error mitigates the impression you might give as the person who messes up. Now, you’re the person who’s messed up and the person who can be relied on to handle things that go wrong. Plus, the sooner you admit the mistake, the more options you’ll have to make it better. Sometimes the effects of a small mistake compound over time, so what starts out as a minor issue quickly becomes a major one. Don’t let that happen.

The Same Day: Zero In On A Solution

As soon as you admit your mistake, start looking into what you can do to make it better. This is something you want to do in that same initial conversation with your boss, right after conceding your error. Ask how you can help play damage control, and maybe come armed with an idea or two. Then let your boss decide the best course of action.

If you have to call a client to apologize to them as well, be ready to do it. If you need to stay late at work to redo part of a project, get right on it. This is crucial to getting out of the doghouse quickly. The faster you engage in owning a mistake and in repairing it, the more quickly your boss will stop thinking about the mistake and who made it in the first place.

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So by the end of the first day, make sure you’ve identified how best to solve the problem and what you’re personally going to do to set things aright. Just remember: Organizations succeed because they recover from the mistakes people make, not because nobody ever does anything wrong.

By The End Of The Week: Show How You’re Learning To Do Better

That doesn’t mean that winning back your boss’s trust is only a matter of the steps you take right away. After you’ve done everything you can to repair the damage in the immediate aftermath, it’s time to figure out how to do the work better in the future. Ask other people in the organization to check your work the next time. Find people who do your job well and take them out for coffee. Watch videos and read articles online (like this one) to make sure you’re figuring out how to improve.

Don’t wait too long to take these steps–start within days after finding a fix for the error you’ve made. Your boss will take note, and that can set you on the path toward rebuilding trust more quickly. But this is a smart move for your sake, too. After screwing up, you may start to wonder whether you were put into a job you can’t handle. This imposter syndrome can make you shy away from asking people around you for help handling your responsibilities. So avoiding that mind-set is a top priority.

What you may not realize is that your boss probably knows you weren’t completely qualified for your job when you got it. Nobody is. Everyone has to grow into the work they do. And a major screwup is the perfect occasion to find ways of doing that. The key, though, is not to wait until things blow over. Take the discomfort of the immediate aftermath of your blunder to spur you into action.

For The Foreseeable Future: Try Not To Make That Same Mistake Again

Finally, none of these other steps matter if you keep making the same mistake over and over again. Now that you’ve learned what it’ll take to avoid the mistake, you’ve got to put in the effort to actually avoid it. Nothing will undermine your relationship with your boss faster than cleaning up a mess and then making the same mess all over again.

A basic principle that applies to pretty much everybody in the workplace is that you get to make a mistake once. After that, you’re on the hook for getting it right. If that requires having someone help you check your work or doing things more slowly, that’s fine. In the mad rush to get as much done in as little time as possible, you may actually create more work for yourself by doing something sloppy.

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So while taking the above steps in the minutes, days, and weeks after your work fumble is crucial, keeping things on track from that point on is the key to preserving the trust you’ve worked so hard to rebuild. You’re still allowed (and even expected) to make other errors going forward, especially as you take on new responsibilities. But when that happens–as it inevitably will–you’ll now know exactly what to do.