Whoopsies: How to Get Over a Mistake at the Office

Quotable Cards Magnet - EmersonReader K has a question about recovering from a big mistake at the office…

I’m a young professional, recently out of college, working in financial services. I recently discovered a mistake on a project I managed, after it was already completed. Fortunately, I will be able to correct the error, but it will cost the company some money. I’ve been working for almost a year and this is my first “big” mistake. Granted, this project was reviewed by multiple people (including my colleagues, my manager, and multiple legal/compliance staff) without the mistake being caught, but as the project manager, it’s ultimately my responsibility. I already brought the error to my manager’s attention. She reacted very calmly, told me not to worry too much about it, and we came up with a workable solution.

Still, being the Type A personality that I am, I’m having a hard time not beating myself up over it. Any tips or advice on how to professionally handle your mistakes? I’ve never been in this situation before and want to handle it correctly. Also, any tips on rebuilding your confidence after making a mistake? I handled dozens of projects successfully, but this one error is really getting to me and making me second guess myself. I’d appreciate any words of wisdom. Thanks!

This is a big issue for so many successful people — even the Harvard Business Review recently had an article on it.  (And there is an amazing quote from Emerson on the topic, available as a handy fridge magnet from FridgeDoorPDQ for $4.95.)  Reader K has done absolutely the right thing: corrected the mistake and ‘fessed up with her boss .  Still, when I’ve made mistakes, the hardest thing (for me, at least) has been to forgive myself for the mistake.  For my $.02 — do your best to turn the mistake into a learning experience.  Sit down and really analyze — just once — what went wrong, how the mistake crept into your day — and figure out how you can stop it from happening again.  Make a note of it, and carry on.  See?  That mistake was helpful.

Now get over it.

Really — there’s no other way to do it.  Just move forward. As Emerson says — finish the day and be done with it.  If you find yourself dwelling on the mistake, try to change it in your head so you’re thinking about what you learned from it instead — not the mistake.

Readers, what are your tips for getting over a professional blunder?



  1. Agree — Admit it (so much better than someone else finding it out), and if possible, bring a solution to your boss at the same time as admitting the problem. That way you’re not generating excess work for him/her.

    Then, learn from it and move on… As long as you don’t repeat the mistake it shouldn’t be held against you (Unless it was an intentional act of fraud, major negligence, etc.)

  2. I think Reader K handled it perfectly. My strategy is to take ownership of your mistake, straightforwardly acknowledge it to those who are affected by the mistake, but don’t take blame for other people’s mistakes. Depending on the scale of the mistake and whether or not your supervisor was involved in the project, you may or may not need to let him know about it; however, if he’s going to find out, it’s far better that he hear it from you than from someone else. If you need to tell him, ask him to talk privately and tell him straightforwardly. If he’s a yeller, stay calm and don’t get worked up trying to defend yourself, but (calmly) don’t let him assign more blame to you than you deserve, either. Usually it’ll end there. If people higher up than your supervisor need to know about it too, your supervisor should determine how and when they need to be told.

  3. Honesty is always the best policy, but before you approach your boss, have a beginning, middle, and an ending. Explain the facts. Don’t give him or her sentiments about it, even if their reaction invites them. Be ready to handle the criticism, frustration, or concern they may or may not have with grace, humility, and professionalism. Have a solution in mind and assure them that you are on top of making it right (unless it’s the kind of error in which their input towards a solution would be valuable; in that case, ask for it). Follow-up and follow-through with everyone involved who can help make it right. After the storm has quelled, leave it alone and don’t bring it up again.

  4. Agree with everyone above!
    My advice is, don’t let your boss see you get worked up about it. It sounds like she understands this stuff happens, and even if it is costing them money she did an excellent job of keeping it calm. You should too. Obviously apologize but watch out for the “I’m so so sorry, I can’t believe I did this!”, it verges on unprofessional and someone may think you are looking for pity or reassurances.
    Produce a solid piece of work next to show them it didn’t stagger your confidence, you want them to know it was a fluke, something you didn’t expect and don’t expect again.

  5. Anectdote lady :

    I agree with Kat completely. Learning how to learn from mistakes and move on is essential to growing as a professional, because EVERYONE makes mistakes.

    My sister helped me put things in perspective after I made a mistake at an internship at a law firm. I had called and left a phone message for a client at the wrong office (the office of the rental appartment building whose tenant association suing him). The message was just that we called and to call us back. He promptly called the firm, asked to speak to me and chewed me out about it. I immediately went to the attorney and confessed and apologized, and the attorney told me to calm down and that the client had overreacted. I still felt bad, went home and told my sister about the “HUGE” mistake I had made. She worked as an ER nurse at the time and said, “[Anectdote lady], a huge mistake at my worplace would mean that a patient got an overdose of medication.” It helped me put things in perspective.

    • Keeping things in perspective is huge. I have family and close friends who serve in the military, and whenever I feel overwhelmed at work or anxious about my performance or a mistake, I remind myself that (1) since I am not under fire, I should probably take a deep breath and calm down, and (2) no matter how badly I mess up, no one will get shot as a result.

      • Anonymous :

        I have a friend who is an OB. I frequently remind myself that no matter how “life and death” my supervisors act, my deposition, or project is not in fact. Whereas, she is helping bring life, and actually avoid death, sometimes through surgery. A mistake in my field may be costly, embarrassing or avoidable, but, it is in the grand scheme of things, fixable.

        Havent finished reading the rest of the comments, but I suspect that “girls that get the corner office” dont ever let anyone see them sweat a mistake. And all those confident men that seem to neve rmake msitakes? well, I suspect its that they never dwell on them or treat them as the end of the world. Come up with a solution, a good spin on it as a learning experience, and move on!

  6. I think you handled it about as well as you could have.

    Think about what caused it and what changes you will make in the future to prevent it. And then you absolutely HAVE to move on.

    You haven’t really worked until you’ve made a mistake, fixed it, and moved on with your life.

  7. anon - chi :

    Some advice I fear will be more applicable to the lawyers among us:

    If you are not the one who discovered the mistake and the partner’s response is to scream at you, consider whether this particular partner tends to scream at everyone and about relatively minor things. If so, as hard as it is to do this in the moment, I would advise trying to weather the tirade with as little comment as possible. The screamer will probably forget both the mistake and the fact that he screamed at you in relatively short order. If there is an older/more experienced associate you are close to, you could also ask that person for their preferred tactics when the screamer lays into them. (Argue back? Look beaten and apologize?) If it takes all your focus to avoid bursting into tears, I would also vote for devoting all your energy to that goal even if that means you can’t really follow the screamer’s tirade word for word.

    And if you are still in the process of considering attending law school … please take a moment to consider the fact that I’ve had the “how not to cry when a partner is screaming at you” conversation with very nearly all of my friends who are at firms, large or small, prestigious or less-so, and whether this is a conversation you are willing to have with all of your friends three+ years down the road!!

    • Good advice. Never cry for a screamer. If you’re in the wrong, always stay calm. If you’re in the right, I have found (due to my rather strong personality formed growing up in a stereotypically large, screamy, Jewish family) that the best tactic is to raise your voice right back at him. Being a bit of a yeller myself, I can say with certainty that the majority of yellers don’t understand how bad it makes non-yellers feel and basically expect you to yell back.

      • I wasn’t quite clear – I developed my personality in a screamy family, but I have had several bosses who were screamers and I yelled back at them. They never yelled again.

    • I prefer the screamers to the “I remember each mistake for years” types, the passive aggressives, and the I-won’t-tell-you-what’s-wrong-but-I-will-never-give-you-work again types.

      That said, remember, the only thing that they can do is fire you.

      • Amen, N. I also prefer the straight-forward screamers to the “I’ll pretend every thing is ok, but will throw you under the bus for something unrelated on the first chance I get.”

      • Double amen. The passive-aggressive types are the worst, and far harder to handle.

  8. I just had to share a mistake I made – I had to proof the contract for a deal. Obviously it was a huge contract and it underwent numerous revisions, edits, etc., and as the junior person I was in charge of making the edits, updating it, making sure all the defined terms were correct – normal junior gruntwork. After the contract was finalized and circulated to opposing counsel, I realized one small error – at the top, where the addresses of the parties was listed, one party apparently lived in the “Untied States of America.” Oops.

    • I’ve made a bunch of mistakes like this. My favorite was when I published a document with a map with mislabeled countries. On the cover. Of the document that was to be widely, widely disseminated to clients.

      Technically it was our design people who screwed up the map itself, but it was my job to approve the stupid thing. I just forgot to look at the cover.

      • A friend was involved in the drafting of a major law (huge! both in impact and length) and she said that during the all-nighters she and the other staffers would wonder if anyone would ever notice if they replaced “bad faith” with “bad breath.”

        • Anonymous :

          No joke: in my previous job I discovered a mistranslation in the English version of an international treaty. Both the English and other language versions were authoritative and had full force of law, but they contradicted each other.

          Not sure if that was ever resolved, or how it could be, or how it took a junior-level staffer at the international court to spot it when heads of state apparently couldn’t.

        • One of my law school professors said that the Endangered Species Act actually made it into print with someone’s phone number as a paragraph.

          • Anonymous :

            section 8(e) of the National Labor Relations Act contains the word “unenforcible.”

    • Anectdote lady :

      Ugh. I hate that typo. I work for DOJ and have to use “find and replace” for “untied” for every brief I do.

      • what about “pubic” vs. “public”? that’s always a fun typo to catch…

        • Ah, in my days as a legal secretary I remember receiving a fax about a “Pubic Auction”…

        • Anonymous :

          I always do a find/replace for pubic/public!

          • Anonymous :

            I clerked for a judge who always used to tease an attorney whose signature block listed him as a “pubic defender” .

    • This is the funniest mistake ever & what a great pun!!

      • Chicago K :

        Our email system always replaces “inconvenience with “incontinence.” I once received an email from a friend with the subject line, “Sorry for the incontinence.”

        She copied a large group of people and I am sure most didn’t notice, or just smiled and read on.

  9. If the mistake is that you missed something or your work was somehow incorrect, acknowledge the mistake, suggest solutions if you can, and then move on. Don’t keep reminding people of your mistake unless it’s absolutely necessary to further the fixing of said mistake. People forget honest mistakes really quickly, in my experience. We’ve all been there.

    If your mistake is that you’ve “disappeared” on people and haven’t been pulling your weight, that’s much harder to recover from. Apologize, but people will be less likely to forget. You’ll need to prove yourself to be a team player consistently over the next few months. I am so much more able to forgive and forget actual substantive mistakes than flakiness. If you left the office without telling me so that you could go out to dinner, and I’m stuck in the office until 2 am finishing the project we were working on together, I will not forget for a very long time.

  10. Welcome to the club. You made a mistake. But then did the exact right thing, you owned up to it. Remember, the cover up is always, always, always worse than the original mistake. Own it. Move on.

    I’ve had to admit mistakes to the Judge. Not little things like saying I represent the defendant when I really represent the plaintiff when introducing myelf. I mean big things like admitting it was my client who brought the kid to a court hearing between the parents, not the other party. I think the judge appreciated me not letting the wrong party be blamed.

    Moving on is easier said than done. All you can do when you find yourself dwelling on the mistake is deliberately make yourself think of something else. It takes effort, but eventually, if you work at it, you will stop dwelling.

    • Agreed. Owning up to it shows integrity and builds confidence that you are honest and can be trusted again.

  11. divaliscious11 :

    If you make a mistake
    1. Own it, fess up – take responsibiity. If you know why you made the error and its relevant, explain it t oyour direct supervisor and articulate what you will change in your process to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
    2. Propose the solution to fix it 9revision0, or prepare a memo to the file with solutions to the problem in case one arises (i do this when my business client takes action against the advice of counsel – I won’t have the luxury of “I told you so” in 8-12 months, but I do have thoughts on how to mitigate the damages because I have been thinking about the risks).
    3. Let it go…. don’t continue to beat yourself up, and remeber humans sometimes make errors….even really smart, bright, dedicated over achievers!

  12. Others have addressed the what to do. For the moving on part, I had an instance where there was an issue about whether I had cost the client the case by not subpoenaing a witness (I say issue because the 2 supervising partners did not agree on whether what I did was the right or wrong way to handle the case). I was really depressed for about a week, and then a friend sent me this quote by T. Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

    It is now posted in my office and I refer to it regularly when I begin to doubt my ability or think I cannot do things. You could also check out the series on failure on slate.com So many of those articles are about mistakes people made that ended up making them better people, or better at what they do.

    • Wow, this is great. I am starting a job tomorrow where I transition from being an underling to being a boss, where my professional reputation and even my license is on the line with every decision I make. Thank you for a great way to manage anxiety and think about the future.

  13. Another nice piece on failure is from J.K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech. A quote:

    “So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

    You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

  14. divaliscious11 :

    Also for the lawyers, where “mistakes” aren’t always mistakes…

    I remind everyone in my office that every piece of litigation out there is the result of 2 or more lawyers looking at essentially the same set of facts and reaching differing conclusions. You can’t always be right, but you can be diligent. Support you position, research your position and own it. The best you ever really have is a 50/50 chance of being wrong….

  15. I agree with the mainstream of advice here, and with the person who had an ER nurse put it in perspective for her. For me, it took a major responsibility in a position for which I had absolutely no training to get over ditherig about decisions forever, out of fear of screwing up. Even then, it took several months before I realized my son was thriving & I was able to think of myself as a mom

  16. “You can spend minutes, hours, days, weeks or even months over-analyzing a situation; trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could’ve would’ve happened…or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the fuck on.”

    Tupac Shakur

    • Recently saw this quote on someone’s FB. I no nothing about Tupac but think it’s a great quote. :)

  17. Love the Emerson quote!

  18. I give myself 30 minutes to have a pity party and then absolutely move on. The more you bring up the mistake, even in your own head, the bigger it gets. If you mention it to people over and over again, it becomes huge and that’s a problem. This works for me if I screw up in court or lose a trial, or if one of my clients has been especially difficult.

    You will make mistakes again. You never learn not to make mistakes, just how to quickly, gracefully, truthfully and with integrity, recover from them.

  19. This. Agree with everyone above. Been there! Oh, ps, we are humans….mistakes happen, and usually (at least in biglaw and midlaw), they are correctible one way or the other – if it’s litigation, there’s that 50/50 thing; if it’s a deal, well, more complicated but still usually remediable without need for human sacrifice.

    But, regardless of remediability or how I deal with it (honest disclosure being key; managing screamer or passive aggressive bus thrower under…), the WORST is living with myself….how could I have been so stupid/careless, etc. I beat myself up endlessly for all the mistakes, big, little, mine, those of others I did not catch, what could have been done differently, how and by whom, and after 25 years of it, I really haven’t gotten much better with that (I HAVE gotten better with the calm assessment of it and delivery of info and curative measures to affected people). My personal all time fave is years ago, while I was an associate in biglaw and fortunate enough to be arguing before my state supreme court, I made a really dumb error in colloquoy over a tangential point – and the partner observing pointed it out right after the argument (tactfully, but still) – of course in the heat of the moment, I didn’t realize /remember the mistake and vehemently denied it. Back then, the court provided all counsel who argued a videotape (VCR!) of the argument, and when the video came out – yup, I was dead wrong…mortified, I still have that video and occasionally watch it just for fun/self-torture. Luckily, won the argument anyway. Also , I VERY humbly apologized to partner (a kind soul) – we still chat occasionally and laugh about it. And I still beat myself up over it.

    I am inspired by some of the posters above re ‘move on’ and want to save this whole post to my desktop for the next time – and there will be one – the ‘oops/oh sh*t’ minute happens.

    Thanks everyone.

  20. Wow, I really appreciate all of the responses! Being a younger Corporette reader, I admire the careers of the more established readers/commenters of this blog. It’s reassuring to know that lots of smart, talented, successful women have made mistakes of their own, and have not only just recovered from them, but learned from them as well (as I have from my own mistake!).

    Thanks for the words of wisdom & advice. It really helps to put things into perspective.

    • Something my boss said to me once has really stuck with me, “RR, you are not perfect. I hate to break it to you, but you are not perfect. You have never been perfect, and you will never be perfect. You are very good at what you do. Perfection is a requirement only in your head.”

      • This is funny because the person I work for told me that I have to get everything perfect…and believe you me I never do *sigh*

  21. Agree with all said, but especially the comments on analyzing what happened. I’d add- consider what are YOUR patterns. Everyone makes mistakes, but in different ways. I’ve learned mine the hard ways. What I need is redundancies built in- fresh pair of eyes, etc. for careless type stuff. I am good on judgment, diplomacy, etc. bad on minutae and attention to detail. Team structures or heirarchical ones should have complementary skill sets. Figure out who complements what you lack and utitlize/befriend them. I read something once on high-level CEO’s, saying the really successful ones don’t try to gap fill their weaknesses- they find partners or subordinates who excel in their weaknesses. No one person can do it all; we each bring different things to the table. Use the boofs to figure out what you don’t bring and proceed knowingly about that in the future. It may also color what direction you take your career in.

    Yesterday I made a new mistake- replying all on an email via blackberry, without realizing I was bcc’d. It wasn’t clear from the blackberry screen, but should have double-checked. Not used often but now on my radar. Boss was totally fine about it and neither of us made a big deal of it- just agreed to be aware going forward. There’s always something out there to miss, if you work at a fast pace on complex stuff. Just try your best and build in stopgaps where you can to counteract your weak spots.

  22. What to do when you have made a mistake, whether you are a doctor, lawyer, or financier, is to try to develop procedures in your office for catching that kind of mistake before it does harm. We all make mistakes, most of which could have been avoided if proper checks and balances are in place (I am not talking about second-guessing errors of judgment.)

  23. The day before yesterday I was told that I had annoyed a client and she didn’t want to deal with me again. I’m new. I cried in my manager’s office, and then I hung on all day, went home and cried for a few hours. It’s not my first mistake which is the really awful thing but it’s the worst.

    I feel like such an idiot on so many levels.

  24. Reader K absolutely handled it completely professionally. She admitted the mistake, worked out a solution with her supervisor, and executed the solution. All you can do is learn something and try to insure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

  25. I used to never sweat the mistakes, but a couple months after I started my current job, someone was let go because “she just made too many mistakes.” I never worked with her, so I don’t what type/how many mistakes she was making – 10x/day? 1x/month? 1x/year? Now every time I make a mistake, I break out into a cold sweat thinking I’m going to get fired. It has been a couple years since then, and while a couple glowing performance reports have helped relieve the stress a little bit, this is one part of my job that I wish I could stress a little bit less about.

    • I’m with you – I draft tens (sometimes hundreds) of pages of documents a week, and sometimes I miss a typo. Sometimes I rely on one document only to find it contradicts another, more authoritative document. Sometimes I don’t think to double-check a colleague’s work before sending it with my own. They are small errors, errors I assume everyone makes, but how many is “tolerable”? Especially in a very junior role, it’s hard to not sweat this stuff.

  26. I’d like to echo some of the previous posters who have pointed out that moving on from a mistake is much easier said than done. Particuarly in law, where so much is not black and white and comes down to judgment, I find myself absolutely torturing myself over the “should haves” and “what ifs” that inevitably crop up. One would think that after 17 years as a successful litigator, I’d be past this! I have gotten much better at moving on (and kinder to myself), and I believe the key is perspective. Whenever I catch myself slipping into self-recrimination, I remind myself that I’ve been down that route before and the only predictable outcome is lost sleep. I consciously (sometimes out loud) tell myself to stop being unproductive and focus on what I can do to remedy the situation. If I still find myself ruminating, I run down other occasions on which I’ve convinced myself that I made a critical error, only to emerge from the situation with a great result for the client. Another thing: I’ve talked with some of my friends and mentors about this, and the most competent, confident people I know, male and female, have confessed to similar thought processes. I believe it goes with the territory of having a job with a great deal of responsibility and caring deeply about one’s work and performance.

  27. Everyone’s shared some good advice on how to handle mistakes when (not if) they happen. I wanted to share a quote that I keep at my desk to remind me to get over and move past mistakes:

    “Sports taught me that I can make a mistake one minute, let it go, and be brilliant the next.” -Lynn Sherr, television correspondent

  28. My favourite quote (from someone in my profession whose degree is the year my mother was born) — and apologies for the gender specific language, but it is a quote.

    “Show me the man who never made a mistake and I’ll show you the man who never did anything”.


  29. Hi
    I was wondering if i could get an opinion on a problem im facing at my workplace. Im a software engineer and i was working on a project which incidentally was my first project in my first job and i enjoyed the work.However since i was new to it i was still grappling with the basics and a senior colleague of mine made the situation bad. He was extremely unapproachable and not only did he not help me but he would take to saying things such as “you should use your own brains” etc thus demoralizing me.Most often than not i had no one else but him to approach incase i had doubts.At the team meeting i addressed this issue in a completely wrong way by telling my senior project manager that i wouldnt work in a project if the concerned colleague was a part of it.However since his credentials are extremely good my manager chose to have him in the team and thus i asked for a release from the team. Since then i moved on to another project and im not happy with the work in the present project at all.I want back in the previous project.However i dont know how to approach my manager and admit that i was rash and then ask him if he will be willing to take me back into the project?

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