We all make mistakes at work. It’s the way they are handled that makes the difference between a good and a bad employee.

You might have grown up with people telling you “honesty is the best policy” – and while you should avoid lying about your mistakes, simply running to your supervisor and co-workers every time you screw up is going to make you look incompetent.

Handling mistakes properly requires walking a fine line between concern and confidence. Here are a few ways you could handle a mistake, including the best way to handle the situation professionally.

The five-alarm fire

Some people react to making a mistake by completely freaking out, then apologizing to anyone who will listen and asking them for help.

Unless the mistake means danger to life or property, sounding the alarm bells isn’t always the best approach. People who go this route often think coming forward, apologizing and asking for help shows concern and honesty. However, some people will see this behavior as annoying and an indication of incompetence. Furthermore, pestering people after making a mistake means hijacking their attention for a problem they had nothing to do with.

Ignore it, hope it goes away

Other people react by not reacting. They keep their mouth shut and hope nobody notices. When caught and confronted, they might brush it off, or even worse, they might remain silent when someone else gets the blame.

A quick side note: We are naturally predisposed to avoid blame. We like to think of ourselves as intelligent, competent employees, and when we make a mistake – it runs counter to that self-image. Therefore, our brains compensate for mistakes by shifting blame elsewhere or downplaying the error.

When you give into the instinct to minimize a mistake, you run the risk of being seen as careless or out of touch.

Analyze, then act

The best approach to handling a mistake is to take a little bit from each of the previous two wrong approaches. You need to acknowledge the significance of mistake and be concerned without completely freaking out.

As soon as you recognize your error, take a moment, relax and evaluate potential solutions. If the error is something you can handle, act immediately. For instance, if you mistakenly approved a product during a quality assurance check, see if you can catch the product before it gets packaged and/or shipped.

If you can’t fix the mistake by yourself, or your attempt would cause more damage, develop a couple of approaches to the problem before springing into action. Figure out who the most suitable person to speak with would be, and approach them with a concise description of what occurred and possible solutions. Let this person know you appreciate their help and realize you’re co-opting valuable time. Apologize once, and then move forward. Avoid hemming and hawing. The faster you fix the problem the more likely others will overlook the error and see you as someone who can fix problems.


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