The Worst Thing to Do When You Make a Mistake at Work

January 26, 2017, 5:00 AM UTC
ABC's "Modern Family" - Season Seven
MODERN FAMILY - Double Click - Claire cant seem to find the right time to fire one of her employees, while back at home Phil thinks he caught Luke with a girl in his bed and no one seems to notice that Alex has moved back home for the summer. Jay refuses to accept that it might be harder to reenter the workforce than he thought, and Cameron and Mitch butt heads on how to share time with Lily now that Cameron took a summer job in Kansas City, in the season finale of Modern Family, WEDNESDAY, MAY 18 (9:00-9:31 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Hopper Stone/ABC via Getty Images) ED O'NEILL
Photograph by Hopper Stone—ABC via Getty Images

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you bounce back after making a major mistake?” is written by Lisa Skeete Tatum, CEO of

In the process of hiring, sometimes I think I’ve found the person out of central casting, but it quickly becomes clear it isn’t the right fit. Once you realize a mistake like this, you have to move quickly to remedy the situation, even if you’re uncomfortable doing so. No one ever says they are glad they waited to fire an underperforming employee.

How you deal with mistakes can define you and your reputation. There are a few tangible things you can do to bounce back right away.

First and foremost, you need to own your error. As soon as you realize it, apologize sincerely (and quickly) to those who may have been impacted. Consider what went wrong and what you would do differently next time. Be authentic and people will be inclined to give you a break.

I once worked with a colleague who mistakenly communicated the wrong proposal to a prospective client, and the client accepted it. Once my colleague realized what happened, they immediately came to me with the full story, and we were able to jointly devise a strategy to not only address this acute issue, but also put a process in place to move forward.

Next, forgive yourself and move on. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t dwell on the mistake. Maintain a positive attitude and focus on what you can take away from it. Even more importantly, spend your time and energy on moving forward. Your colleagues will appreciate it, because they’ve made plenty of mistakes, too.

I’m reminded of a time when we were launching a new product and needed a partner to help with a key component. The choice came down to a renowned, larger firm that we believed had more resources and reach, and a smaller, unknown, less expensive—but scrappy—firm. We made the decision to go with the brand name company and quickly realized it was a mistake. We were not going to get the service and support we needed and it was costing us more time and money than we could afford.


I decided to end the relationship with the firm and ended up partnering with the smaller firm, who not only met but exceeded our expectations. By not overthinking my mistake and quickly changing gears, I was able to achieve a positive result.

Finally, solidify your relationships after making an error. You can fortify the bridges you’ve carefully built by actively seeking advice and sharing openly what you learned as a result of going through the process.

As a board member, I have seen many instances where management has come to the board requesting the termination of someone in a significant position with the company. The most successful leaders honestly and professionally communicate why this needs to happen, and lay out a clear strategy for filling the role or modifying its specifications based on their experience. This type of approach breeds confidence and support.

There’s no doubt in my mind that you will bounce back at work and be a better professional as a result of simply making a mistake. I encourage you to take a moment to pause, learn from your mistake, and address each one right away with an open mind.

Life is a series of many steps forward and a few steps back. It’s up to you to decide whether adversity causes you to retreat, or makes you into a stronger leader.

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