Mistake at work? Try this 3-step process to address it
We’ve all been there, grappling with the aftermath of a blown deadline, a misstep made in a meeting, or a bad decision that feels as though it might tarnish our reputation at work. But here’s the truth: mistakes are an inevitable part of the professional journey and need not spell the end of one’s career.
Forward-thinking companies like HubSpot have recognized the value of learning from mistakes. They’ve pioneered innovative platforms like “failure forums,” where employees gather to celebrate effort, promote open dialogue, and reshape the narrative around mistakes.
But workers shouldn’t wait for their employers to smooth things over when mistakes arise. This is an opportunity to demonstrate personal ownership and creative solutions. Instead, follow this three-step process that empowers professionals to repair the repercussions of mistakes, whether minor blips or massive blunders.
Step 1: Make plans
Okay, so you’ve made a mistake—a humbling experience that happens to the best of us. The first step in overcoming it is to pause and make plans to address it. But you don’t have to go it alone. It’s okay to consult your team leader, a sponsor, or a colleague.
In this planning phase, take a moment to consider the following:
What happened? List the facts as you know them. Consult with others to ensure you’ve got the complete picture.
Do you need to address the mistake alone, or should you involve your boss or another manager? Does the answer to that question shift based on who you’re talking to?
How does this work connect to other projects? Who do you need to talk to to ensure the appropriate connections are made?
Next, think about who needs to hear directly from you. Is it just your immediate team, or do other partners or stakeholders also need to be informed? Transparency and accountability are key here, so communicate openly and honestly about what went wrong. It’s important to take ownership of the mistake and show you’re committed to finding a solution.
Step 2: Find your sponsors
We all need a little support when trying to bounce back from a mistake. That’s where sponsors come in: someone who believes in your potential and actively promotes your success, even when you’re not in the room.
Look for someone who intimately understands your work and shares your vision for what you’re trying to accomplish. Having a positive rapport with them beforehand is vital, as it establishes a foundation of trust that will be important for your recovery.
When you ask for support from a colleague, boss, or other sponsor, follow this flow:
Request time to discuss the mistake; be sure to indicate that you’d like to discuss the mistake.
When you meet, don’t mince words. It’s important they have a clear picture of what happened in your view. Be sure to share conflicting arguments that you may have heard from others.
Be clear on what you’re asking them to help with—and what you’re not. Coordinate with your sponsor to determine what you want them to say, to whom, and when.
Sponsors are not there to solve the situation but to understand the incident, recognize your value, and speak up on your behalf. Their endorsement can go a long way in repairing any damage caused by the mistake and showcasing your growth and resilience.
Step 3: Reclaim the narrative
Just because you’ve owned up to the mistake doesn’t mean that your self-promotion grinds to a halt. Yet, many workers hesitate to brag during normal times, let alone after a blunder.
Learn to talk about your contributions. You can do this without coming across as boastful. Just stick to the facts and inject a bit of inspiration into the conversation.
Start by identifying your biggest priorities and highlighting the aspects of the projects you have handled well.
Showcase your ability to learn and grow from the mistake by sharing additional ideas that bring value to any company project or initiative.
To balance the narrative, weave in positive stories about others’ ideas and projects. A good rule of thumb: for every story about yourself, be sure to tell two more about someone else (not in the same discussion, but over time to balance things out).
By reframing the conversation around your strengths and aspirations, you demonstrate a proactive approach to growth and establish a narrative that reflects your determination to overcome obstacles. Once you’ve done that, feel free to move on. Chances are, others around you will already have done the same.
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