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How to Bounce Back After Making an Uncharacteristic and Costly Mistake at Work

  • Publish Date: Posted over 6 years ago
  • Author:by Caroline Macklin

Question: I am a marketing manager of a pharmaceutical company and really enjoy my job. Normally I receive nothing but praise from the owners of the company and have always felt confident in my role. But a few weeks ago, I made a major mistake at work that cost our company an important client. My boss was clearly disappointed and he had to explain the situation to the owners. I feel that since it has happened, I have been sidelined and my confidence has been seriously knocked. How can I express my regret, earn respect and build my confidence again?

Answer: It is almost inevitable that occasionally in our working lives mistakes occur. We have to own up to them, fix them if possible and then move on. Unfortunately, your mistake seems to be continuing to impact on how you feel about the organisation, your work and your relationship with your team. You have to take some action to ensure that it doesn’t continue to impact on your work. Here are some steps that might help to move forward.

  1. Forgive yourself
    Although this sounds like a cliche, thinking through your error, accepting your mistake, and moving on personally will impact on how you can move on. We are all human and can easily make a mistake at work. It appears that your error in judgement has impacted your confidence negatively and this will affect your work. However, you have said that your record previously was exceptional, you were well received by your team and often acknowledged for this success. You need to try to focus on these positive reflections of yourself, rather than negatives. Take the time to consciously forgive yourself for the mistake.

  2. Accept responsibility
    Be very clear with your manager that you realise the impact of your error and accept responsibility. Request a meeting specifically to discuss the issue. Approach this professionally and keep the tone serious with a focus on the future, rather than apologetic without clear direction. Prepare thoroughly by investigating the root cause of the issue and take care to outline key learnings before you go into the meeting. It is important that you strike a balance that acknowledges your error and the impact this has had on the business but also analyses potential improvements to the process.

  3. Prevent a repeat
    The most important element of accepting responsibility, and therefore preventing an ongoing impact of your error, is developing a mechanism to prevent re-occurrences. In investigating and thoroughly understanding the incident, you should also look for the points of weakness in your process. Could checks and balances be put in place to alert you to danger prior to a major mistake being made? Could a backup plan be developed to repair any damage prior to the customer removing their business? Is there any remedy for the situation with the customer? Could there be a way to win the business back – or at least mend bridges? Implementing improvements in how you do your work will prove to management and your colleagues that you are still capable in your role. But, just as importantly, it will also help to rebuild your own confidence.

  4. Challenge yourself
    Continue to build your confidence by setting slightly stretching targets or participating in new projects. The start of a new year is a good time to set goals or targets for the year – or for the first half or quarter of the year. Set your usual goals but then set a stretch goal, which is an additional goal in case you exceed your initial goal. This will show initiative. However, because of your recent experience, try to minimise the risk level of your tasks or projects during this period. This is because your anxiety levels are likely heightened and it could result in you making further mistakes, which would only prove to damage your confidence further. Achieving these goals, or completing a new project, will help you to feel competent in your role again, as well as proving your worth to your colleagues. Setting achievable ongoing targets will also reinforce a more positive impression of your own ability as a whole.

This article was first published in the business section of The Sunday Independent, on January 14th, and the original version can be read here.

Caroline Ward - Senior Occupational Psychology Consultant
Caroline Macklin​
​Senior Occupational Psychology Consultant