November 08, 2021 5 min read

We hate to break it to you, but workplace mistakes are going to be made … by you. Remember, even the best of the best stumble from time to time. Working professionals may juggle multiple priorities and tasks but at the end of the day, they’re still human. (Gasp, we know!) The key to getting over messing up at work is all about your recovery. That’s what your colleagues will remember you by rather than the slipup. Not only do we have some guidelines to help ease your embarrassment, but we’ve also looped in some professionals from our CMA NXT community who share how they overcame their “Oops!” moment.

Define Your “Oops!’

Frustrated professional sitting in front of laptop.

Here’s the thing about workplace mistakes: they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are going to result in a nervous laugh or two while others are apt to create full-blown panic. Before you do anything, it’s time to pause and assess the situation. You’ll be running up against that flight or fight mode but taking a step back is always worthwhile in the end.

As Darian Kovacs, Indigenous Founding Partner of Jelly Digital Marketing & PR Agency and host of the podcast Marketing News Canada reflects “The most important takeaway from making mistakes is that I would have never grown or reached my potential without them. Mistakes, big or small, help you narrow down where you shine and where you can better yourself. They’re a necessary part of the process of becoming the best business leader and professional you can be.”

For the Small Stuff, Don’t Beat Yourself Up

We’ve all seen a clever meme or two on common workplace mistakes like forgetting to attach that file to an email or having a typo dead center despite many proofreads. It’s cringey when it happens, but it happens. These types of professional mistakes can make you appear a bit inconsistent with the usual focused professional you are. This means when you make such a mistake, you feel the type of embarrassment that makes you want to disappear for a bit.

Ask yourself this instead, “Does this impact the work I’m doing?” If the answer is a confident “No, not really” that means the work mistake you made can be handled swiftly. Like a coffee spill on the table, grab a towel and wipe it clean. How exactly do you go about doing that? Acknowledge it privately and deal with those feelings to let them go. Then acknowledge it publicly with some grace and move on. Sometimes a quick “Sorry!” is truly all it takes. Don’t get stuck on a little mistake.

What If It Really Is A Big Deal?

So it’s the kind of mistake that’s going to get noticed. That ripple effect goes from you, to your team, to other teams or even across the whole organization or brand. That’s a big pill to swallow and those feelings bubbling to the surface are a natural reaction.

Here’s what Gurpreet Jhaj, Vice President Consumer Marketing at BCAA, had to say about these moments: “It's always good to remind yourself that you are not the first person to have made a mistake and you won’t be the last  and that you will make more as you progress through your life and career.” That in itself will help you walk those feelings back. There’s a lot of power in reframing the situation through this lens. Don’t let a negative mindset sink its hooks into you! According to TalentSmartEQ research “90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress to remain calm and in control.”

Team of coworkers in discussion.

What’s more, Gurpreet also notes that “[the] most important thing is to make sure you own it and use it as a learning opportunity.” There’s truth in classic clichés and none so much as making mistakes is how you grow. Having this self-awareness will demonstrate to all those around you that you’re learning and go a long way to build back trust.

Looping in the right people

Speaking of which, how do you go about apologizing and fixing a workplace mistake? First things first, communication. We mentioned already that saying sorry helps ease small mistakes, but for more complicated blunders, it’s time to break out heavy-duty communication skills.

Here’s a checklist for you to make sure no one is forgotten:

  • Your reporting manager. As the person you update on regularly, they should know what’s going on not only as a courtesy, but also to provide backup. You’re still in the hot seat to sort things out, but at least you know your manager is there to step in if need be.
  • Your team members. This is especially needed if it affects their workload and deliverables. Layout what happened and how it will affect them so they can make adjustments.
  • Other teams. Yes, even across departments and external partners count too. If it affects them, they need to know. You might be intimidated reaching out especially if the rapport isn’t strong. Get your manager’s advice here on how best to handle the message.

Craft the Perfect Professional Apology

Now that everyone knows about the situation, it’s time to deliver an apology. Knowing how to deliver a solid apology for a mistake professionally is more than just your delivery method (email? Face to face? Carrier Pigeon?). It’s all about your attitude.

Say your apology and decide if you need to explain things further like your thought process or any factors that contributed to said mistake. Be sincere when you say you’re sorry and remember to not over apologize. Find the balance so you don’t appear frazzled.

Take a note from Gurpreet’s book. “Early in my career, I was responsible for building a campaign and ended up selecting the wrong audience to send out a mailing. As you can imagine I was mortified by the whole thing, but as soon as I realized what I had done I spoke to my manager. We came up with a solution and with the help of the team, we thankfully turned the situation around. I learned from it and added some extra steps to the process to prevent it from happening again."

It’s all about accountability. Gurpreet recalls the best advice she received was to“[u]nderstand why it happened and ensure measures are put in place to avoid it happening again.” So as you craft your apology, be sure to include what you’re going to do about it next. Don’t keep everyone hanging! An action plan ensures people that you are in control and remaining calm extends to others. Then, make a mental note as Gurpreet suggests to help the future you stay ahead and keep from history repeating.

Grow from this Learning Opportunity

Employee reviewing creative materials at desk.

Last but not least, be kind and forgive yourself. Don’t let fear of the past hold you back for the future. For Darian, making mistakes was his best teacher and “a natural part of [his business growth] as well as [his own] professional growth.” He remembers that one of “the biggest mistakes [he] made was saying “yes” far too often.” He clarifies “Yes to any project no matter the scope – [I] was just super excited to gain the experience. From this, I quickly learned that our clients needed specialists and someone to execute a project that was “great”, not just getting it done.”

Sounds exactly like he turned his mistake into a learning opportunity. “Sometimes we hold back our creativity or skills out of fear of failing or missing the mark. However, a misstep because we dreamed big is so much better than if we just stay in the same place because of fear.

Mistakes are just the necessary stepping stones to reaching creativity and thinking outside the box. — Darian Kovacs

We all make mistakes and the good news is we’re not defined by them. You will be okay in the grand scheme of things because every mistake is just you growing to a better and more amazing professional version of you!

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