How to Fix That Mistake

Wow, you really screwed that up. Yeah, they’re going to be mad. The good news is that it’s not the worst thing that anyone has done. A little bit later I can tell you how I screwed up the RFP on the Donavan account. Yeah, you don’t know what that is, because they dropped us like a rock.

Calm down and remember that no mistake is fatal. Here’s what you need to do now.

Take Responsibility

I know the last thing you need is another black mark in your record. But everyone knows who is responsible. So don’t even try to deflect blame.

This will buy you future credibility. The jury is out on whether you will be known as the one who keeps screwing up. What will be worse is if you get the reputation for never being at fault. At some point they’re going to stop believing you. Don’t make me pull out the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” parable.

This doesn’t mean you have to fall on your sword. Without shifting blame, make sure you account for all the factors. The mitigating circumstances could soften the blow. If someone else has a part in this, you need to explain that too. This won’t get fixed if you’re the sacrificial lamb.

Take it All In

Listen to everyone’s concerns. Understand why they’re upset, and let them explain the consequences. Show patience and understanding. You may not see all the problems that have been created.

And there’s a very good chance that they’re going to explain exactly what needs to be done to fix this. It’s like getting the instructions for keeping your job.

Take it Seriously

Yeah, it would be nice to have a joke or two to lighten the mood. But it won’t go ever very well. I know stress tends to bring out my inner smart ass.

Instead, you need to be somber. Show you take these matters as seriously as they do. This will encourage them to cut you some slack. These guys like to see that you’re taking this seriously. Otherwise they’re going to believe you’re going to do this again.

Note that someone has to explain this to their boss. They’re not going to enjoy the conversation and will resent you if you look like you’re enjoying this one.

Take Action

Be ready to be part of the solution. Take on extra responsibilities. Work on fixing your mistake as an act of contrition. It gives you a chance to show you’re not lazy or incompetent. This will help people see you as being able to do more than screw things up.

Don’t Take Any Crap

Someone is going to be mad. And he is going to let you know just how mad. It doesn’t do you any good to get defensive. That’s just going to get them more mad. You have to stand there and take your lumps. Up to a point.

When it gets personal, you need to let them know they crossed the line. Don’t let anyone insult you. Keep them focused on the mistake and what went wrong. Anything more is just bullying. You didn’t join the military. No one has the right to tear you down.

This doesn’t mean you get to yell back and make it an argument. Tell them you understand the problem and that it’s your fault. But say the personal attacks are wrong and inappropriate.

Take Out the Problem

Let’s say this is a teachable moment. It’s a learning opportunity. So teach yourself something about yourself and how not to make mistakes. You don’t want this to happen again. Fate isn’t going to do it. You’re the one in control of the circumstances that lead to mistakes.

You cannot learn unless you take responsibility.

Be honest with yourself. Acknowledge the mistakes so you know what you need to change. What you’re trying to do is change what you control. You cannot change other people. So you need to concentrate on what parts you own.

Look for patterns in behavior.

If you’re doing the same things that lead to mistakes then you know what you need to fix.

Understand how your mind works.

When mistakes keep happening, you have to do more than double check your work. What is preventing you from making the right choices? You don’t need to go go therapy, but you need have some self-awareness here. Take time to understand how you learn and think. Figure out the situations that lead you to do sloppy work.

Avoid failure.

When you understand why you make mistakes, you can avoid the circumstances that lead to problems.

Take Chances

But don’t go into total safety mode. Remember what I said about avoiding failure? Well, the very best way to do that is to not do anything. Everything you do has the chance of being wrong.

You’re not going to get anywhere like that. Remember you now have a better understanding of yourself and how to do your job. The next mistake you make won’t be the same as the last.

Those guys who yell at you, they aren’t getting there by playing it safe. They have taken their lumps along the way. But they didn’t let the experience beat them.

The biggest mistake you will make is to just sit there and hope no one notices what you’re doing.

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Cubicle Curtis is the guy sitting at the next workstation. He's been in this office longer than anyone else, so he's a valuable resource of who does what and how to get things done. Before this job, he has worked just about every job between pizza delivery and accounting. Now, he's all about getting the job done and helping you figure out how to survive yours.


  1. Paul Ehrenreich on the 13th October

    As someone has had a couple of bad screw up over there career, I cannot stress how important it is to just come out and take responsibility for your actions. It has probably saved my ass on numerous occasions. Management I found is more forgiving if you come and say “yea it was me, I screwed up. Here is how it’s not going to happen again going forward”

  2. Lars-Christian Elvenes on the 14th October


    It’s my first comment on the blog, so first things first: This is a great blog overall. Lots of great insight and smart things to consider. Thanks a lot to all the contributors. It’s become one of my regular reads.

    Thanks for this post, as well. Owning up to mistakes is crucial, and I think you’re right on the money where you mention that the people yelling at you have made their own share of mistakes as well. Brian Ahearn has a good post on this subject as well in his blog Influence Poeple. You can read it here.

    I also liked the part about not taking personal insults from anyone. Making mistakes is human, and if the job is complex it’s something that is going to happen from time to time. If treated as learning experience, your boss will know that the next time around, you’ll have much clearer idea of what you’re in for. After all, you got to find out the hard way.

    Thanks for some good insight 🙂

    – Lars-Christian Elvenes

  3. Lisa on the 14th October

    In your “Don’t Take Any Crap” section, you make a good point. This recently happened to me as well, but it was from my boss (I work in a small company, with no HR section). I don’t think he knows the difference behind constructive criticism and downright personal insults.

  4. Steve J. Moore on the 14th October

    What a great explanation of how to take professional responsibility. We all make mistakes and we all should remember good steps to take action and come back from them. Thanks!

  5. arnold on the 14th October

    good post!… it really helps

    70% of the time people are thinking about themselves (well maybe) , just do your job , focus , don’t let anyone block you

  6. Leonard on the 15th October

    Had this happen yesterday. Good advice. Thanks!

  7. Brian on the 19th October

    My friend Lars (comment above) put me in touch with this blog. Dale Carnegie had it right when he wrote, “When you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.” When I’ve messed up and owned up I’ve generally found people to be very gracious. So few people admit their mistakes that most people find it refreshing and it actually can make the relationship even stronger.

    I like your point about crossing the line too. Whether at work or in our personal lives we’re no one’s punching bag. You can usually tell a lot about someone if you say, “What can I do to make this right.” Sincere people will tell you how to fix it but insincere people will just keep bashing you. You don’t need those who bash so you know to stop wasting your time and energy.

  8. Chanel on the 5th November

    Hi, I’m Chanel, recently I was appointed as a junior graphic designer at a big inhouse studio for a bank, Within three weeks of starting they expectected me to perform miracles, although I did make mistakes My boss thought I was slow and refused to understand that I was still trying to get a grasp of the work and the work place. I had to quit my job as they didn’t offer any room for improvement.

  9. Anton Ranestam on the 25th November

    This has happend a ton of time for me. When the client doesn’t like design and I need to charge more beacuse he wants and extra feature. The client got really mad and called me an idiot and such.
    I didn’t finish that project, I just emailed him and said that he needed to find another designer. I lost some cash, but I can’t work with a jerk.

  10. MARIA on the 22nd January

    Great post! Thanks for the constructive and not deterministic consideration about the missed oportunity. Also works for academic life.

  11. Lauri on the 27th January

    Great reminder that we’re all human and not alone in the mistake category. Had this happen just yesterday with a client. I owned the problem, apologized, asked how I could fix it (knowing full well it couldn’t be fixed), gave a solution for response to make it a positive outcome rather than focus on the negativity, and today I’m one less client.

  12. Smita on the 14th June

    You know I had screwed up something at work. I was blamed. I was all hopeless and didn’t know what to do. Your post has given me a new hope and positivity and I have realized that there is a solution to every problem.

  13. Brenda on the 13th November

    Today I was asked to fix another employee’s mistake. I referred the mistake back to the employee so they would learn from the mistake but was told my job is to fix it, one stop resolution. I agree it should be one stop resolution, but I was not privy to the initial conversation the employee had with the customer as they had no notes or documentation to go by. Should an employee fix another employee’s mistake for one stop resolution?

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