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Mistakes at work and how to propel your career after they are made

Mistakes at work

Mistakes at work are not always a bad thing

Mistakes at work and what to do about them

Making a mistake at work is about as bad as it gets. We were hired for our expertise in a specific discipline. We were trained by our employer and co-workers to do a specific task. The company made an investment in us and mistakes at work never feel good and are painful no matter how trivial. Everyone makes mistakes at work and this week’s topic is what to do after the mistake is made so you not only keep your job, you have the opportunity to propel it.

First and foremost, don’t worry about the mistakes. Unless you are heart surgeon or command control at NASA responsible for rocket launches, I really wouldn’t worry.

It isn’t the actual mistake at work that gets people in trouble, it is the way they handle the mistake that gets them into trouble.

You WILL make a mistake at work

It is only a matter of time. Everyone makes mistakes and it will be OK. No one is perfect. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t be reading this blog, you would be sipping fruity drinks with umbrellas on an island in the sun. The president makes mistakes, Eagle scouts make mistakes, and it really just is a matter of time before mere mortals make a mistake at work. Any company that expects all of their employees to be perfect are on crack and you should get out of that neighborhood. Let’s get practical and think about how we are not just going to survive the mistake but look good in the process.

mistakes at work

What you say and how you say it will determine how the date goes

Everyday mistake

Take a typical mistake that happens on the dating scene and apply it to work. If you are meeting Mrs. Right for a date and you are late to the party, what you say and how you say it will impact the rest of the evening.

On the HRNasty scale, the following are various degrees of the same mistake.

Major F@#% Up

You and Ms. Right agree to meet for coffee at 2:00. You show up 15 min late with no explanation, no acknowledgment, and no apology. You ask “Been waiting long?” and proceed with the date like nothing happened. Not good.

Major F@#% Up with a Flourish

You and Mrs. Right agree to meet for coffee and you show up 15 minutes late and blame it on Mrs. Right. “You told me to be here at 2:15, I am not late, you were told me the wrong time. This isn’t my fault.” You will probably be parting ways at 2:16.


You and Mrs. Right agree to meet for coffee and 1 hour before the appointed meeting time you text your date and let her know you are running 20 minutes late. When you show up, you apologize for being late and provide a logical explanation.

Looking Good

You and Mrs. Right agree to meet for coffee and 20 minutes before the appointed meeting time you text your date and let her know you are running 15 minutes late. When you show up, you apologize for being late AND thank her for being flexible. Of course, coffee is on you and you tip the barista big to show you are not a cheap skate (but not so big you are showing off). Move on and don’t dwell on your mistake. At the end of the date, tell her she is a champ for being flexible and you are really glad she waited for you. Don’t bring up the incident otherwise.  

In each of the above scenarios, we were late to our date with Mrs. Right. We handled it four different ways. Based on the tone and the delivery, the outcome resulted in four degrees of forgiveness. It isn’t the mistake it is how we handled our sh*$ that matters.

Mistakes happen at work and two real-life examples 

Every week, we have an executive meeting where 10 department heads sync up. The Head of Professional Services explained that we were going to go live with a new client today and the Head of Technology started waving his hands. He wasn’t happy with the news because his department was going to support the additional load via our technology. In addition, he didn’t receive a heads up. It was explained that he had asked for a heads-up multiple times with past rollouts and this just wasn’t cool. Because he is a professional, not surprisingly, he said something to the effect “I am angry about this but I am still smiling” and made a gesture with his hands pointing to his big grin. It was the perfect execution of bringing levity and seriousness to the moment at the same time.

The Head of Professional Services calm response

HPS: Yes, you were notified.

HPS. Did you know about the rollout?

Tech VP: Yes, we did, but we didn’t know it was today.

HPS: You knew about these folks as a customer. I am confident that we have kept you updated.

Tech VP: I knew about them as a customer, I didn’t know about the rollout today.

HPS: This is something we need to take offline. I will work with you so that in the future you and your group have the updates. I will make sure this doesn’t happen again.

This is how Professionals conduct business

Now, this scenario could have easily been turned into a blow-up but it didn’t. No one shifted the blame, no one lost their temper. Professional Services realized that this wasn’t the time or the place to discuss the details because it didn’t involve the 8 other execs. Technology didn’t keep digging because he trusted that the intent was there. Professionals through and through.

We moved onto the next topic without any fanfare and yeah, I work with a bad-ass crew. Professionals with a capital P. I don’t think that many would have noticed or acknowledged how easily this could have gone any one of 100 different ways, and all of them bad because these guys handled their sh@*.    

Professional Services had no ego

Professional Services may or may not have made a mistake but he just stepped up and took responsibility. That is how Sr. leaders take care of mistakes.

The difference between a senior person and someone who is junior isn’t just their knowledge or their skill set. It is usually their ability to control and address mistakes at work.

Everyone makes mistakes. Senior people make mistakes just like less experienced people make mistakes. The mistakes Senior people make are usually much more grave because they are responsible for more. The difference between the two levels of experience is how they handle the situation moving forward.

How to handle mistakes at work

If you make a mistake, own up to it quickly. Unless the mistake is malicious, I highly doubt you will be fired. Especially if you are the one that discovers the mistake, admit to it and do something to fix the situation moving forward.

When I was early in my career, working in corporate America, a colleague I worked with made a mistake that cost the company $1 million dollars. My friend wanted to quit because he thought he would never be promoted and his career was over. Most of us sitting around him wanted to quit because we didn’t want to be seen around this guy and it was damn uncomfortable. Talk about Death Row and dead man walking.


Shortly after the $1M left the company, our colleague was promoted to manager. He couldn’t believe it and asked his manager “How could I be promoted after my last mistake?” It was explained to him that the write-up he did after that mistake showed everyone that he wasn’t going to make that mistake again and he was able handle stress with maturity.

The $1M lesson

That retrospective was shared with the entire department and then throughout the company. Yes, the company lost a lot of money, but it gained an individual with a lot of maturity and even more loyalty. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake again and no one around him was going to make that mistake. The company cannot teach a calm demeanor under duress and focused on retention. As much as I am in favor of a hanging in the morning to motivate the troops, I gotta say, this move was pretty effective.

I blogged about a situation where I was working for a small start-up and a very large mistake was made. The CEO and CTO did a very similar thing and you can read about that here

Mistake Checklist

  1. Stash any attitude or ideas of blaming anyone else. Even if you are only partially responsible, just own everything. Time is a wasting and this behavior just looks childish.
  2. Fess up as quickly as you possibly can. Do not try to fix it yourself or cover it up. (We have all seen that movie) Don’t even think about taking 30 minutes to try to rectify the situation on your own. Go straight to your manager, do not pass go and do not collect any stupid thoughts along the way.
  3. Apologize sincerely and succinctly. Do not dwell on the apology or apologize over and over. Everyone around the situation feels bad for you and additional apologies just make everyone feel more uncomfortable. Time is a-wastin’ and there are problems to clean up.
  4. Stash any attitude or ideas of blaming anyone else. Even if you are only partially responsible, just own everything. Time is a wasting and this behavior just looks childish.
  5. Read rule number 1.

The company is paying you to fix problems, avoid problems and solve problems. The company is not paying you to blame the problem on others.

We need a plan, people

  • Come up with a game plan to fix the problem, put it in a written document and share it with the group. Don’t rely on going from person to person to verbally articulate your plan. It will take too long and will sound too dramatic.
  • After you clean everything up, write-up a retrospective. You need to review what went wrong without mentioning names, what can be done to avoid the problem in the future and what you learned. The more this retrospective is shared throughout the organization is proof the doc was effectively written. Your goal is to put together a document so well written it is shared wide and deep. You do not want to be shy at this stage of the game. A well-written document in times of stress will gain you points.

Next time you make a mistake, get help. Don’t try and cover it up and practice transparency.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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