All of us have felt the fear of admitting when we’ve made a mistake at work. We may be terrified to tell our manager, or nervous about the impact our mistake could have on the business. But mistakes are completely normal and should be viewed as an opportunity to grow. This article aims to provide a deeper insight into why this fear of making mistakes at work exists and how to overcome it. We’ll also provide advice to managers on how to react and problem solve collaboratively as a team.
Why is there a fear of making mistakes at work?
Making mistakes at work can be scary. This is especially true if you’re the sole breadwinner of your household or rely on your position for everyday expenses like rent. When the stakes are high, it’s normal to worry about what-if scenarios when something goes wrong. In rare cases, extreme perfectionism is diagnosed as atelophobia which is the extreme fear of making mistakes.
While these are all valid reactions, making mistakes at work can actually improve your relationship with management and provide opportunities for self-improvement. But first things first, you have to adjust your mindset and overcome those fear-based feelings that are keeping you paralyzed.
Overcoming the anxiety of making mistakes at work
If you’re like most people, you probably feel a knot in your stomach when something goes wrong at work. It could have been a minor mishap that no one noticed or a major mistake that cost your company a huge sum of money.
Regardless of what happened, overcoming the anxiety of making mistakes at work is the first step to finding a solution. If you skip this part of the process, you may find yourself covering up issues that could have been fixed, making things worse long-term, or even getting found out by your boss. Follow these steps to overcoming work-related stress and bounce back stronger than before after you’ve messed up:
Step 1: Process your emotions
It’s natural to feel frustrated and embarrassed when something goes wrong at work. But, after a few seconds, the feeling should pass and you can begin to think logically. If it doesn’t happen quickly, take some time to process these emotions. Talk it out with a trusted friend, voice journal about it in your car, or take a walk outside to get some fresh air before starting fresh.
It can be hard to maintain a sense of balance when you’re upset. Try to make sure that your emotional response is proportional to the mistake you made.
Step 2: Keep perspective
If you make an error at work, it’s likely not a life-or-death situation. Most of the time, it can be corrected or resolved quickly. If you don’t find the right perspective, your mind may get too focused on the negative consequences of your mistake, which can trigger more errors in the future.
Step 3: Acknowledge the mistake
If you need to apologize for an error, do it quickly and politely. If it’s a small issue, a sentence or two via email or chat messenger is enough to make amends. If it’s a larger issue, consider holding a meeting or giving your manager a quick phone call. Also, make sure to tell your boss about how you intend to prevent this mistake in the future.
Step 4: Review your response
It’s so easy to get distracted by all your other goals and projects that you can forget about anything else that went wrong before you got to this point. Taking the time to review your response to the mistake helps you improve in case it ever happens again.
Ask yourself questions. Do you make the same mistake over and over again? If so, what changes can you make to prevent this from happening?
Step 5: Practice self-care
Getting back into a healthy routine can help you release pent-up energy and prevent making mistakes at work in the future.
To some, the concept of self-care may seem like a trend or luxury. But making sure you’re feeling your best is critical for improving your confidence and your performance at work.
Issues such as sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, and dehydration can lead to mistakes you otherwise wouldn’t have made if you had been taking better care of yourself.
Step 6: Evaluate your own performance
The easiest way to earn people's trust is to consistently deliver stellar work. Even though you may have failed in the past, there's still time to move on and create a successful and rich working life. Remember, a mistake or two over the course of an otherwise successful period will not make or break your career.
How should managers react to mistakes at work?
Managers are responsible for reacting to and assisting employees with mistakes at work. Even in the most high-pressure situations, doing so with care is not only good for morale but will prevent similar mistakes in the future. How a manager reacts to mistakes at work can make all the difference between transformational leadership and losing otherwise great employees.
Great managers understand that we can all learn from our mistakes. Mistakes help us develop as individuals and as a team.
Great managers can also recognize when they themselves have made mistakes. Before you approach a team member, take a close look at yourself to see if you're really worried about their work. If so, what do you think about their performance? Who is responsible for their work so far?
You may find that you’ve contributed to the environment, the process, or the miscommunication that made the mistake possible. Reflecting on this ahead of time will relieve everyone of playing the blame game and instead solve the problem from a fair and level-headed place.
Additionally, managers should make sure that each mistake is a teaching moment. It may be hard but don't try to fix the problem. Instead, frame it as an opportunity to improve and develop.
When approaching an employee who has made a mistake, start by being curious about it. Ask questions about what happened and what their perspective is on the situation. Use active listening skills when speaking to team members, as it will let them know that you are paying attention.
They may fess up immediately. If they take the blame for something that wasn’t their fault, which is pretty common, address that. If they don’t admit to making a mistake, approach the situation with care and focus on the issue, not placing blame.
Give the team members the autonomy to figure it out on their own. Then, provide your feedback in a fair and balanced manner. Afterward, encourage them to learn from it and avoid repeating the same mistake.
When communicating with an employee who has made a mistake, in-person meetings are often best. However, many teams are now made up of contractors, gig workers, and freelancers who work remotely so a physical location is not always accessible. If that’s the case, lean on digital tools to illustrate the issue.
For example, reports and individual task assignment lists from project management tools. These can also be used to prevent future mistakes, as managers can easily use them to communicate the actions and behaviors expected of team members and improve the overall work management process.
There may be times when mistakes happen over and over again. If that’s the case, the employee may be engaging in a pattern of behavior that keeps them from performing at their best. Managers can step in and provide ideas for healthy habits that will prevent the same type of mistake from cropping up again.
For example, you can ask a marketing team member to overcome a common marketing mistake of missing a content publishing deadline by writing a to-do list every day. This will help them stay on top of their tasks while also motivating them to finish their work at the same time.
In a nutshell, it’s important to understand that punishment for infrequent mistakes is unfair and ineffective. These mistakes offer opportunities to improve, which both managers and employees can embrace.
How to admit a mistake in a professional environment
You may end up in a situation in a professional environment where an apology is needed. And when it comes to making mistakes at work, honesty is the best policy. Certain actions can break trust, but an apology can help rebuild it.
In your explanation, it's important to detail why you acted the way you did. It shows that you care about how those around you are affected by your actions.
It's important to address the person you're apologizing to by name, regardless of their status. Having an open conversation can help both of you understand the other person better, and it can prevent an insincere apology from happening.
If the mistake you made affected someone personally, it's important to validate the feelings of the other person. Having the courage to admit that you're sorry can make a huge difference in how people treat you.
Take responsibility for your actions and have a plan in place for how to make amends before you approach the appropriate person or people. Having a plan in place shows that you're thinking about how to make things right. You may even want to read about examples of taking responsibility at work and model your behavior on whichever feels appropriate for the situation.
However, don’t get carried away and make promises you can’t keep. It's important to set goals that are realistic so that you can avoid repeating the mistake.
If your apology is accepted, you can then try negotiating a solution by asking the other person to reflect on the situation and consider their feelings.
After you apologize, make a greater effort to keep your promises and not repeat the same mistake. Doing so can help improve the situation and make the other person feel more comfortable.
How to learn from mistakes at work
It's important to come clean and admit your mistake, but it's also important to move forward with a positive mindset. You'll most likely feel a bit down about your mistake right after it happens. But by learning from it, you can improve and become more resilient in the long run.
Start by creating a plan for improvement. If you made a minor mistake, then creating personal goals and action plans will help you put those lessons into action. You can learn a universal lesson from nearly any situation, no matter how unique it is. For example, if you learned that a mistake was made because of your forgetfulness, implementing organizational strategies to improve your memory could help.
Next, keep track of progress over time in a notebook or virtual document. Be sure to note the highlights along with the lowlights. Look for patterns. As they come up, add them to your action plan or personal goals list.
Monitor whether or not these changes have led to better, more consistent outcomes. If not, adjust and keep going.
Lastly, don't be afraid to ask for help if you're unsure which strategy or tool will work best for you. Managers are there to support your performance. If you approach them with honesty and vulnerability, they’ll likely be flattered you thought to ask. They may even offer advice or make changes that will improve productivity for you and the rest of the team.
The pressure to perform at a high level can often result in mistakes and inefficient habits. Learn from your mistakes and take ownership of them. Communicate in an open and honest manner. Ask for or provide help when needed and remember that every new mistake is also an opportunity for better performance.