Tell me if this sounds familiar. Your colleague makes a trivial mistake. Maybe it is a financial typo in a presentation or they did not speak up when they had questions and finished work that was not quite right. All you want is for them to own up to it and move on. Instead, you get a long-winded explanation of why the mistake happened.
It is a mark of strength — not weakness — to admit culpability swiftly and succinctly and explain how it can be rectified.
Now, I understand why people default to defensiveness. It is human nature to want to protect yourself in a situation where you feel criticized. But this is especially true at work, where the stakes seem high. You want to be good and right — no one wants to let the team down.
Maybe you sent that careless email because you were rushing and did not double check before hitting send. Or you got stumped on a project and missed the deadline because you were nervous to admit that you did not know how to proceed. It makes sense if you feel a strong need to justify what went wrong.
But the reality is that defensiveness and excuses never help.
This is because all those explanations damage the value of transparency. The more you obfuscate, the less room there is for truth — and truth builds trust. All high-performing teams are resilient. Resilience grows when people are clear with one another.
I know that when there is an error, I do my best to quickly accept my role in what went wrong and suggest what we can do next. That way, I am modeling for the team that it is okay to make an error, speak up, and then work together for better outcomes in the future. There is no doubt that you will make mistakes, but how you react when you do is what really matters.
Here is how to proceed gracefully after a minor mistake at work:
It may be tempting to listen to the nervous voices swirling around your head, but you need to be honest with yourself and your teammates. So, own up right away. The faster you accept that what you did had negative consequences, the faster you can move on to improving the situation.
Be sincere (yet brief)
We have all heard insincere non-apologies (“I am sorry, but…”) followed by long-winded explanations. These will not get you anywhere. No one wants to linger on the issue. Be brief. If you need to apologize, address specifically what went wrong.
You do not want the team to linger on the issue, but you yourself should take some time to analyze what went wrong. Think back. Did you fully understand what you were working on? Were there any steps that you missed? Did negative emotions lead you down the wrong path? If the answers are unclear, ask your co-workers or team leader for insights on what they think happened.
Avoid repeating what went wrong
You need to avoid making the same mistake twice. So, stay alert when similar situations come up to the one where you made your blunder — maybe it happened during a weekly meeting or when you were pulling together a certain report. Pay extra attention to these situations, remembering what happened the last time and what you learned. This will help you avoid repeating (and apologizing for) the same problem again.
Give your best (next time and the time after that)
Mistakes at work are inevitable and, for the most part, easy to recover from. The most important thing you can do is give your best each day. Put in the work and show that you are an invested and growing teammate. The team will respect you for your work and your ongoing contribution.
Instead of focusing on what went wrong, understand why it did, how you can fix it, and what you will do next.
This is what is best for everyone involved. So, accept the blame when it is yours and move forward. There will be more space for doing great work and finding perfect moments together next time.
How do you move forward after making a mistake at work?
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