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5 Brilliant Ways to Recover After Making a Mistake at Work

Transparency is key.


By Marina Khidekel, Editorial Director at Thrive Global
Carmen Martínez Torrón/Getty Images
Carmen Martínez Torrón/Getty Images
You probably heard this week about Apple’s FaceTime glitch, which allowed people to hear and see those they were calling before the recipients picked up their calls. It was the talk of the internet this week, with people scrambling to disable the feature on their devices. While the company has put an end to Group FaceTime for the moment and aims to release a software update to fix the bug this week, the debacle got people talking about the poor souls who committed unwitting faux pas on work calls.

We asked members of the Thrive Global community to share how they recovered from an embarrassing work mistake. Which of these helpful strategies will you keep in your back pocket?

Consider it a learning opportunity

“In a mad dash to send an email blast to 300 people using mail merge, I ended up sending an email that said ‘Dear Leslie’ on every message. But there was only one recipient with the actual first name Leslie. After feeling sick for about an hour, I went straight to my boss, apologized and said I’d be willing to take responsibility for it in a follow-up email. He suggested that we only send a correction to anyone who replied with a comment about the mistake, which I did (all seven of them). But I still felt horrible, so I ‘went to the balcony’ and made list of all the ways I’d gone above and beyond for that project. Then, I reframed the whole situation using Carol Dweck’s amazing work on Growth Mindset. Rather than feeling like a failure, I looked at it as a learning opportunity. I not only learned how to avoid that mistake in the future, but I also taught all of my colleagues, as well.”

—Barbara Roche, executive coach, Boston, MA

Acknowledge it, then ask three questions

“I have found that the worst thing I can do when I make a work mistake is to ignore it. It’s best to acknowledge it and apologize. But before I have that discussion, I ask myself three key questions that I learned from the book Crucial Conversations: What do I want for myself? What do I want for the other person? What do I want for the relationship? When I get clear on these answers, I talk things out. At times, I even begin by letting the other people know my answers to the above questions. It really helps and sets expectations for our relationship.”

—Pat Obuchowski, executive leadership coach and author, San Francisco, CA

Apologize from the heart

“We’re all human — no one is perfect. At times, we may say things without using the best word choice, and can hurt others in unexpected ways as a result. But first and foremost, we should always be mindful of our speech. Our words reflect our thoughts and souls. When we realize that we’ve made a mistake, we should apologize sincerely, whether that be by approaching the person who got hurt, or by not repeating the same mistake again. It must come from your heart. Although it may take time to heal, recover, and repair the mistake, your future words and actions will reflect your progress.”

—Cynthia Leung, pharmacist, Kingston, Canada

Be honest, humble and prompt

“I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes in my 40-year career: data analysis errors and omissions, mistaking a gossip for a confidant, supporting the losing side in a corporate argument, resigning too soon, and making an inappropriate statement. The simplest thing to do is to own up to the mistake as quickly as possible, instead of trying to cover it up or place onus on someone else. Sadly, I witnessed others avoiding their mistakes using each and every of the above. But when all is said and done, being honest, humble, and prompt is the best way to recover.

—Michael Ivers, CEO, Everett, WA

Follow this five-step plan

“Be proactive. Own it — don’t hope that the mistake won’t be discovered, and don’t wait for it to be. Get in front of the situation by going to those affected with the following kind of message: ‘I need to tell you that I really screwed up. I did (or did not do) X, and as a result [explain the consequences and the current situation]. I sincerely apologize, and I want to fix it and make things right. I recommend that we (or I) do Y and Z in order to fix things and recover from this error.’

Be mindful that this error presents you with an opportunity to demonstrate how the lengths you’ll go to to make things right. Intent is much more important than technique. Often, the recovery process creates a closer relationship with those impacted.
Don’t be defensive. Don’t explain why the error occurred.
 Defensiveness is never helpful in this type of situation. In most cases, the affected person will ask why it happened. Don’t answer that question. If you do, they’ll perceive it as an excuse, which is likely to make them more upset. Reply with something like, ‘Honestly, it really doesn’t matter because whatever the reason, it was completely unacceptable. What I want to do now is fix it and make things right.’
Take action. Follow up.
 Once you’ve agreed with the other person about how to recover from the error, take action. Do what you said you would. If you need others to get involved, follow up to make sure they execute. Also do the same with the aggrieved person to make sure they’re satisfied.
Forgive yourself. Be in the present moment.
 Once you’ve implemented your recovery strategy, put the incident behind you. Don’t let it negatively impact your performance going forward. Think about sports: if you make a stupid play, if you run a bad race, if you make a bad shot, you have to put it behind you. You can’t let the bad shot impair your ability to make the next shot a great one. This is not easy — it takes practice.
Also, stop talking about it at work. Put a smile on your face and move forward with the intent to perform with excellence.”

—Larry Sternberg, consultant, Lincoln, NE

(Thrive Global)

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