Turn Setbacks into Setups

Messed Up At Work? How To Turn Things Around

April 30, 2019

All of a sudden, in the middle of your workday, it happens: you look at your phone, your computer, or an important file, and you realize with a sinking stomach that you’ve made a huge mistake.

Violating compliance or company policy can leave you embarrassed, afraid, and wondering how you’re going to make it through the next few days. Maybe you even want to throw the towel in now to avoid the fallout.

Don’t. Instead, turn an awkward situation into a better one—reputation wise, anyway—by following these key steps.


  1. Apologize right away.

Your first instinct may be to call in sick, or to quit your job entirely. Well, fight that urge. Once that initial panic wears off and you’ve pulled yourself together, take a moment to apologize.

If possible, it’s best to do it in person. There’s no need to make excuses or to get defensive, and you should take the high road—even if the offended party doesn’t. The key here is to show vulnerability, keeping things simple as you do so. A great apology shows three things: remorse for what you did, willingness to take responsibility or ownership of the consequences, and respect for the person or people wronged.


  1. Own your mistake.

You can’t change what happened, but you can change how you react to the mistake now.

Take any consequences in stride, and do so professionally, with your head held high. If the situation warrants, you should also ask for the opportunity to help move forward as well. This could mean many things—driving over to see a client, accepting an HR write-up, working overtime to remedy lost work. Whatever the case, follow through without complaint.

On top of this, make sure to go about your normal work tasks with diligence. Following any big mistakes, the company’s eyes will fall on you, so take the time to do your best work.


  1. Reflect and create a game plan for next time.

What led to the offense? Were you feeling overwhelmed by your workload? Were you multi-tasking when you shouldn’t have been? Were you rushing to meet a deadline? Were you tired and sleep-deprived?

Sometimes, the initial mistake has a clear solution you can directly address. In this case, figure out what it will take to prevent such mistakes in the future. If you can, it’s helpful to bring that to your boss as well, as this shows a further willingness to make things right. Other times, finding a clear solution seems impossible—such as when you thoughtlessly hit Reply All instead of Reply on a critical email. In this case, it’s more about working on your concentration and focus, or managing your workload so you don’t feel the need to move as quickly.

Once you’ve followed through with these steps, it’s time to start earning back the company’s trust, one step at a time. Hopefully, you’ve grown a little wiser from your error, with the knowledge that you’ve grown in your role by accepting the consequences and living life on your terms.


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