Did You Goof Up at Work? Then Own Up.

Handling a mistake the right way can actually help your career.

Written by Doug Fleener
Published on Oct. 23, 2023
Did You Goof Up at Work? Then Own Up.
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You may have sent an email to the wrong person, missed an important deadline or made an error that cost the company big bucks.

How to Handle Making a Mistake at Work

  1. Communicate why you made the mistake. Do not create an excuse for it.
  2. Develop a plan to fix the situation. 
  3. Be prepared to say what you will do differently to prevent the mistake from recurring.

When these mistakes happen, it’s natural to want to hide under your desk and pretend it never happened. However, now that so many people use shared desks, that would be awkward. Owning up to your mistakes can actually be good for your career. Yes, that sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. Here’s why you should own up when you goof up. 

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Why Owning Up Is Good for Your Career 

Taking full responsibility for mistakes and setbacks is a superpower that can propel your career forward. It shows you have integrity and don’t shy away from problems because they might make you look bad. Owning up also exhibits initiative to address issues proactively, even difficult ones involving your errors.

In addition, discussing mistakes allows you to demonstrate problem-solving skills. When you present not just the problem but also a solution, you reveal valuable critical thinking abilities. Doing this in a crisis impresses managers even more. 

Owning up to your goofs proactively shows you know what you did wrong and are committed to setting things right.

Taking responsibility for mistakes also helps you take control of the narrative. It is why you want to own your mistakes as fast as possible. You avoid looking sneaky or having the story spiral into an exaggerated account. Owning up to your goofs proactively shows you know what you did wrong and are committed to setting things right. Taking responsibility gives you the power to turn mistakes into opportunities for growth. So don’t run from errors — own them courageously as your superpower.  


The Cost of Not Owning Up

When you try to cover up a mistake or shift the blame, things usually end up worse. Eventually, people will discover what happened and you’ll lose credibility and trust. Attempts to hide mistakes often compound the original error and make you look bad. It can even lead you to lose your job.

I once had to terminate an employee who had made a six-figure financial mistake. He didn’t lose his job for the error. He was a good employee and the company could have easily absorbed the financial loss. His termination was not a result of the error itself but because he failed to uphold the company’s values by lying about it.

When you openly own your mistake, you demonstrate courage, accountability and integrity. Owning up takes confidence and shows you have a strong character. It’s an opportunity to prove to your boss and others that they can rely on and respect you. It’s also the right thing to do.


Overcoming the Fear of Owning Up

It’s understandable to feel anxious about admitting you made a mistake. You might worry about getting in trouble or losing your job. However, most reasonable bosses will appreciate your honesty. As noted above, the coverup is usually far worse than the original mistake.

Before owning up, take a bit of time to process what happened and your role in it. But, and there is often a but, move quickly. The longer you take, the more likely someone else will discover the error. Then you’ve lost the chance to drive the narrative. Also, the longer you wait, the more you’ll think about it. The more you think about it, the bigger the issue becomes in your head. That can cause a lot of sleepless nights.

First, make sure you are clear on how you made the mistake. You’re not creating an excuse. You’re going to state the facts of what happened. Next, develop a plan to remedy the situation as much as possible. Doing this will demonstrate you’re taking steps to fix problems you’ve caused. Finally, always be prepared to say what you’ll do differently moving forward so the mistake doesn’t happen again.

Explain the error factually without making excuses. Outline your ideas to correct the mistake and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

When you tell your boss about the mistake, be direct and humble. You should try to tell them in person if possible. If that’s not feasible, attempt to have the conversation by phone or over Zoom rather than email or messaging. Face-to-face or phone conversations provide a human touch, emphasizing empathy and understanding, which written communication might lack. It’s also easier to convey sincerity and demonstrate accountability when owning up to errors in real-time dialogue rather than through back-and-forth emails or texts. While it may feel more uncomfortable, having the humility to tell your boss in person shows courage and responsibility for your actions.

Start by saying, “I made a mistake and take full responsibility. Here is what happened…” Explain the error factually without making excuses. Outline your ideas to correct the mistake and ensure it doesn’t happen again. This straightforward, solutions-focused approach shows you’re owning up to doing the right thing, not just to cover yourself. Your boss will appreciate you sharing the steps you’ll take to not make the mistake again.

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How to Own Up the Right Way

Follow these tips to own up to your mistakes in the most constructive way:

  • Don’t make excuses or cast blame on others. Take full responsibility. 
  • Be timely. Don’t wait to disclose the mistake.
  • Have a solution plan ready outlining how you’ll fix the issue.
  • Remain composed. Don’t get emotional or defensive. Stick to facts. 
  • Be very specific in how you will learn from the mistake.
  • After the conversation, follow up on your solution plan. 
  • Implement safeguards to prevent the mistake from recurring.
  • Reflect on lessons learned and how your behavior needs to change.
  • Close the loop with your boss about how you implemented the solutions for the mistake and ensure it won’t happen again.

The next time you slip up at work, take a deep breath and own it. Admitting mistakes may feel risky, but it will keep those mistakes from hurting your career. When done right, it will even help it.

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