How to Handle On-the-Job Mistakes

How to Handle On-the-Job Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes throughout their career. You don't have to be new to the job to do it.  Veterans in any field make mistakes just like newer members of the profession, it's just that veterans have learned how to recover from them, correct them and move on.  Because of that skill, it may seem as if the seasoned "pros" don't make mistakes any longer.  Not true-they have just learned to handle them with skill.

When you are new to a position and trying to prove yourself,  it  seems counter-intuitive to think that a mistake could actually help you.  We tend to overreact and magnify the significance of an error as we judge ourselves.   But consider the alternative.  Trying to hide a mistake that just snowballs and gets worse will be unproductive and often costly.   Newer professionals may be tempted to hide errors because they weigh heavier than wins.  The Harvard Business Review  asked several experts about the best way to handle slip-ups.  University of   Pennsylvania Wharton School   Research Director Paul Schoemaker  is the co-author of Brilliant Mistakes.  He suggests accepting the mistake, learning from it and moving on, advising that we "Look forward and base decisions on the future, not the past. 

Some might say the way you handle a mistake defines you as a leader.   HBR quotes Duke University's Christopher Gergan for this sage tip, "The most useful thing you can do is translate a mistake into a valuable moment in leadership."  

But how do you handle that big moment when you walk into the Partner's office, swallow your pride and admit the gaffe?  Consider having at least one, if not two plans for correcting and dealing with the mistake in mind-before you walk in.  Present those "proposed plans of action" as you admit the error.  This will lessen the blow and show your supervisor that you are thinking ahead.

The Harvard Business Review  offers the following advice:


  • Accept responsibility for your role in the mistake
  • Show that you've learned and will behave differently going forward
  • Demonstrate that you can be trusted with equally important decisions in the future


  • Be defensive or blame others
  • Make mistakes that violate people's trust - these are the toughest to recover from
  • Stop experimenting or hold back because of a misstep