Professional Development

How to Bounce Back When You Make a Mistake at Work

Written by Kate Lopaze

The reply-all with a snarky comment, when you meant to forward to a trusted friend.

The dropped ball that caused you to miss a major deadline.

The “I’m disappointed in you” talk from your boss.

So you’ve made a major mistake at work. Or you’ve gotten a poor review, or maybe you just feel like you’re coasting along, performing way below your ability. Whatever the reason, you feel like you’re just barely holding on. What can you do when you make a mistake at work?

At some point in their career, everyone has a stumbling point. Sometimes mistakes happen due to being overwhelmed, making an oversight, or having a moment of carelessness. It happens to everyone, even the most conscientious employee. So when something happens and you feel like you’re sitting in the corner of shame, remember that you’re not the only one. Even the people who are angry with you have been there (or will be) at some point, so try not to take it too personally.

The Aftermath of your Gaffe

After a mistake, it can feel like you’re stuck in a kind of purgatory. Am I going to get fired? Have I totally ruined my reputation? And everything, every little bobble or mistake, feels magnified. It’s important not to get stuck under this tidal wave of stress and worry. Once you’ve made a mistake, or been called out for poor performance, the most important thing is to step up.

Apologize/acknowledge what happened.

You don’t need to wear a sandwich board saying, “I screwed up,” but letting your boss (and anyone affected by the mistake) know that you understand how you failed is key. If you messed up, a simple “I’m sorry” goes a long way here, just like it does in all aspects of life. And FYI: “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not a legit apology here.

Own it

Accept responsibility for what happened. Resist the urge to throw anyone under the bus here; it won’t lessen your own consequences, and will just cause further issues and bad blood. That’s not to say you should take all blame; rather, if it’s a shared mistake or problem, be clear about your part in the mistake, and take your share of the blame. Naming names, or the kindergarten classic “but he was doing it too!” won’t get you any brownie points right now.

Show that it won’t happen again

If it was a lapse on your part, let people know that you’re taking action to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If it was a process that failed, show how you’re changing things so that there’s not a repeat.

Look for small wins

Unfairly or not, you’re likely going to be under increased scrutiny for some period of time, while things are still recent and raw. In addition to making sure the blunder isn’t repeated, it couldn’t hurt to be an A+ employee for a while: show up early, stay late, put in extra hours to show that you’re back on it. Take on extra projects to demonstrate your commitment to the job. It’s about rebuilding others’ confidence in you, sure, but it’s just as much about rebuilding your own confidence. Succeeding at things, even small ones, can help you get back into your groove while showing everyone else that you’re ready to move onward and upward.

Move on

If it’s not a fatal (e.g. firing) mistake (more on that in a bit), this too shall pass. Odds are, things will get back to normal pretty quickly. And while you can’t erase what happened, or make everyone forget what you did, everyone has a job to do. This incident will get lost in the shuffle of everyday work. You might have a rough few weeks, but at some point you’ll notice that things have gotten back to the routine.

Ask Yourself: Why Did This Happen?

Once you’ve got the problem in hand and have started your apology tour, you have some space to think more about why this happened. Sometimes mistakes just come out of the blue, in a moment of inattention or poor decision-making. Other times they’re part of a pattern of carelessness, or a lack of caring about the job. So after you’ve started the damage control process, it’s time to figure out why you’re in this situation in the first place.

  • Did I make this mistake/perform poorly because I don’t care about this job anymore?
  • Did I make this mistake/perform poorly because I’m overwhelmed by my job, and need to make adjustments?
  • Did this happen because I don’t have the right skill set, or need to know more about how things work?
If you made the mistake or got a poor performance review because you’re just not into your job

It might be time to get out. It’s not ideal to quit straightaway—it’s much better to start exploring your options and opportunities before you jump ship. But if you’re already performing at a lower level because you’re unhappy or disinterested, that’s a major red flag.

If the performance issue was due to you being overwhelmed by your job

Talk to your boss. ASAP. It’s time for a very frank discussion about your priorities, your tasks, and your role. If things don’t change and performance continues to slide, that will be on you, and it will make things even more uncomfortable. Your boss has a strong interest in making sure you perform your best and stay a satisfied employee, so don’t fear the conversation. It might be possible to restructure your daily tasks, or find new ways to do them, so that you’re able to do your job at the level you know you can hit.

If the mistakes are happening because you don’t have the right skill set

You need to figure out what you’re lacking, and strategize how to either a) get those skills and knowledge; or b) share responsibilities in a way that works for you and your team. It may be that this is something you can handle on your own (for example, getting trained on a particular kind of software, or taking online seminars about time management). But it may well be that you need help from someone else in your company, and that’s okay. If you need to sit down with someone to understand processes or tasks, do it. If you need help from your boss prioritizing, ask for it. This goes back to showing that you’ve learned from past mistakes, and are trying to get stronger.

What If I’m Fired As a Result?

Some mistakes, well, sorry to say that you can’t bounce back so easily and keep your job. Say there was a major money loss, or you happened to do something that was considered unforgiveable by the powers that be. If this turns out to be the case, and you’re let go for cause, your career is not over. Remember before, when I mentioned that you have to work hard to prove yourself and move on? That’s doubly true if you’re fired—and you have to cope with that while also looking for a new job. So it’s not an easy road, but also not impossible.

If you lose your job because of performance issues, you still have options:

1. Don’t put off your job search.

It can be tempting to lay low for a while, but the longer you wait, you’re delaying the inevitable moment you get back out there. You also run the risk of (unintentionally) reinforcing the idea that you’re unhireable, the longer you stay out of the game. As with a big mistake, accept that it happened, think about how you can do better, and find ways to improve and make yourself a stronger candidate.

2. Think hard about what you want to do.

Is your field really a good fit for you, after how things ended at your last place? If it was just the company or the role that was the problem, that’s a pretty straightforward fix. But this is a chance to think about what you should really be doing next.

3. Get your references in place.

Given how things ended, you probably won’t want your most recent boss to sing your praises (especially if you’re not sure what he/she will say), but you can still get former colleagues from other jobs, or people in your network to act as references.

4. Spin it.

You lost your job, and that’s going to come up when someone sees an end date on your resume, or asks why you left your last job. The important thing is to turn the narrative into a more positive one. “I left my last position because it wasn’t a good fit. I’m ready to move on to the next challenge.” It’s a little vague and not ideal, but it’s also not a brutally honest, “I got fired. Hire me please?” Keep in mind that the reasons you were let go might come up during a background or reference check, so it’s best not to flat-out lie about your reasons for leaving.

While you’re looking for a new job, the old one might haunt you somewhat. But again, it’s important to acknowledge, accept, and move on with your life. Everyone loves a good comeback story, and if you work hard to be better than your past mistakes, you can pull yourself up and out of the muck. You can survive, you will survive, and you’ll walk away with some very hard-won insight about yourself and your career.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.