One of the worst feelings at work is when you realize you totally messed up. You stare in disbelief at first hoping that you didn’t really make as big of a mistake as you think you did. Then, with a pit in your stomach, you calculate all the ways you can hide and hope that nobody notices what happened.
In fact, you can overcome a lot of mistakes at work, but you have to deal with them in the right way. And that will start with a difficult conversation.
Though it may not seem like it, your aim is actually to increase the amount of trust you get from your boss. You might assume that a mistake is the surest way to lose your boss’s trust. But what your supervisors want more than anything is to know that nothing will go too seriously wrong. If they know you will come to them to alert them of problems you have caused, then they don’t necessarily need to look over your shoulder all the time.
Pull off the Band-Aid
Don’t hide from your mistake. When I was a kid, I hated removing a Band-Aid from a cut. I would pull it off slowly, and each moment was agony. Ripping it off would have gotten the whole process over with more quickly, and I would have experienced less pain. The same principle applies here.
As soon as you find out that you have made a mistake, prepare what you’re going to say to your boss and then reach out to talk about it. If your boss requires an appointment, set one up right away—with some urgency. If you can pop your head in to their office to talk, then do that. The less time you wait, the better.
The main reason you want to do it right away (beyond not having to worry about it for too long) is that the less time that goes by between a mistake and your admission, the more things there are that you and others in the organization can do to fix any negative consequences. Waiting to talk about a mistake runs the risk of compounding the consequences of your error.
Be clear about what went wrong
One thing that is hard to do in any difficult conversation is to make a clear statement about the problem. It is easy to slip into a long roundabout story about what happened—complete with all of the reasons why you acted as you did. You might even highlight all the aspects of the situation that led to your action.
Instead, start with a few simple declarative sentences. “I did X. As a result, Y happened.”
You can provide more context afterward, but it’s critical to lay out clearly what happened. That’s the thing your boss really needs to know first. If you bury that in lots of explanation, then your boss can’t help you to deal with the consequences of the error. It will only create more frustration.
Rather than give a long-winded explanation for why you did what you did, let your boss know whether you understand why the mistake happened first. If you do know why it happened, save the explanation for the error for later. That explanation is important, but it comes after fixing the problem.
Suggest a fix
Most mistakes have consequences that could be costly for your organization. You might actually lose money. You might just damage a relationship with a customer or client.
Tell your boss anything you have done already to try to fix the problem. In addition, if you have other suggestions, lay them out. Offer to do whatever needs to be done to minimize the damage that arises from an error. Taking responsibility means doing whatever you can to repair the problem—including calling a client or customer, explaining the problem, and offering to make it right.
If you are new on the job and are not sure what to do, then work closely with your supervisor to understand better how to fix the situation. Like it or not, significant errors are learning experiences. Your boss wants to know that you are not going to waste opportunities to learn something important.
Plan for the future
At this point, you might be preparing for the worst. Everyone is afraid that an error will get them fired. And there are supervisors out there who will punish you for making a big mistake.
Organizations that value learning will punish negligence, but not mistakes. That is, if you really knew better and still did something wrong, you probably ought to be punished for it. But if you made a legitimate mistake, have thought about the consequences, and are ready to learn from it, then your boss would be silly to punish you too severely. After all, you are probably the last person in the organization who will ever make that mistake again.
That means that you need to think through how you will handle situations like that in the future. Identify what went wrong. Did you act too quickly? Did you neglect to check your work? Did you listen to someone you shouldn’t have?
After the dust settles on your mistake, sit down with the boss again and plan for exactly how you will deal with situations like this in the future.
Ultimately, this approach will help your supervisor to recognize that you can handle responsibility, because you take ownership of your mistakes and work to correct them. That is all any boss can hope for.