Four Things to Do When You Make a Mistake at Work

Four Things to Do When You Make a Mistake at Work April 18, 2014

Each summer, as a teenager headed for college, I was determined to make as much money as possible. My dad, a roofer, needed the help. There were perks:  free transportation in Dad’s ’52 Chevy, a lunch packed by mom, and a paycheck that didn’t bounce.

Reality is, I wasn’t a good roofer. My lines were often crooked and, if left uncorrected, would ruin the run of shingles going all the way up the house. My patient dad would help me rip up the offending row, and we’d start over.

On one hot August day, I committed a cardinal roofing mistake. I didn’t properly secure the ladder. Through a negligent sideswipe of my body, I bumped into the ladder and watched it fall helplessly to the ground.

There we were, stuck on the roof. I saw my dad’s face, sullen and slack-jawed, and he was very quiet.This was bad. Eventually, a passerby saw our dilemma and thought he should call the fire department. “Honest buddy,” we said, ” just push the ladder up here.”

Paying the price

That wasn’t the last mistake I’ve made on the job. I’ve messed up at work plenty of times and have had to pay a price to make things right. I’ve had to make amends with coworkers, call customers, or stay late at night to fix my errors.

No one, however, has had to pay the price quite like Washington, D.C. meteorologist, Tucker Barnes. The WTTG-TV weather man predicted a monster spring storm would hit the capital. Instead, the area just got just a dusting of snow and rain.

Barnes’ punishment was played out on live TV the next day, as he was forced to take a “timeout” in the corner of the studio.  “Finally, someone takes responsibility for their actions,” boomed the voiceover. The hilarious stunt was further enhanced by Barnes’ calls from the corner. “I don’t know why you guys have to do this to me,” he said. And, “How long do I have to stay here?”

You might not have to sit in a corner, but the results of your mistakes are often no less publicly humiliating. Loss of position, pay, or prominence are all common results of getting it wrong. Paying a price for mistakes is a long-standing principle in the workplace.

Part of our high calling is facing the music when things go south. We are told in Galatians 6:5 “…every person should bear their own load.” In other words – we should learn to take our lumps.

Here are four things you must do when you make a mistake at work:

1. Own it.

Don’t point fingers. Don’t blame. Just admit it. Because of the complicated work structures of the modern workforce, mistakes are often multi-layered and shared. If the mistake isn’t solely yours, step up to your responsible portion without implicating others.

2. Fix it.

Don’t let someone else clean up behind you. If you broke it, you should be the one who has to face the music in front of suppliers, customers, or other employees and to do all you can to put it back together it.

3. Embrace it.

There is something about owning up to mistakes that helps close the door. You can even laugh about it later. To my dad’s dying day, we laughed about that ladder.

4. Don’t repeat it.

When you learn from your past, you earn respect. You are able to teach others and mature. Learning from the past is a valuable trait in any field.

When was the last time you messed up at work? Can you laugh about it now?

Image by Sharon Drummond. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.
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  • Yvonne

    Very good advice, especially No. 3. In a previous job, my team started a “mistake of the week” contest. At the end of our Friday staff meeting, everyone had the chance to share a mistake, what they did to fix it, and most importantly, laugh together about it. It was our secretary’s idea after she made a silly, minor mistake that was blown all out of proportion by a back-stabber type in another group. She was a very good story-teller and we shared hilarious laughter together, and decided to repeat every week.

    It even developed later that we awarded the Mistake Mug, a large coffee mug with our company logo on one side and a little sign we made laminated on the opposite side. Each week we agreed by consensus who had “mistake of the week” and got to keep Mistake Mug for the week, plus award it to the next recipient the following week.

    The whole idea had many benefits:

    * It made us closer as a team.

    * It made it easier to fix mistakes fast. There were no attempted mistake cover-ups. We built the culture we could go to anyone on the team for help right away, fix the situation together, and move on.

    * It took blame out of the equation. We even stopped saying “admit” the mistake, we just said “describe” what happened. “Admit” implies guilt and most work mistakes are certainly not intentional.

    * It reinforced the perennial sayings about mistakes and being human, and that no one is perfect. No one was expected to be superhuman 40 hours a week, not even the boss.

    * And finally, it facilitated truly making it possible to learn from mistakes and help prevent the same mistakes from happening in the future. Often, unprompted, the Mistake Mug recipient would say, when telling her story (it was a team of eight women), “What I learned is….”.

    In short, this fun, informal system helped address all four of your points. Sometimes the Mistake Mug story and award was the highlight of our week, for the shared laughter and team spirit it fostered. We often looked forward to it, and could be heard saying throughout the week, “Mistake Mug!” good-naturedly as things happened. Imagine that, looking forward to mistakes.

  • Thanks, Yvonne, for that story. It really adds to the conversation by adding a real-life “this is how we did it” example to the mix. Great stuff.

    Most of us have been in work situations where there is a lot of back-biting and blaming going on all the time. When you write, “It took blame out of the equation,” it really resonated with me. What a blessing to be able to not just “admit” mistakes but to simply own them as part of doing our daily work.