Are you afraid of making mistakes at work?

Caeleigh MacNeil contributor headshotCaeleigh MacNeilJuly 15th, 20227 min read
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Summary

Everyone makes mistakes, but it still feels sh*tty when they happen. Learn how to cope and move on when you mess up at work, so you can still take risks and tackle challenges without being held back by a fear of failure.

No matter who you are, falling down from time to time is normal. Mistakes are part of being human. They’re essential to help us grow—from learning to walk as toddlers to navigating school, personal relationships, and the workplace. 

Ultimately, it’s how you pick yourself up that matters. 

Making mistakes at work

Mistakes may be normal, but it rarely feels good when they happen. Making mistakes at work is especially tough because our jobs are important to us—particularly if we (and our families) rely on our income for food and shelter. The stakes feel exceptionally high, which can make us sensitive to even the smallest errors. 

But it’s not realistic to be perfect all the time. You’ll make mistakes at some point, and that’s ok. The vast majority of the time, mistakes aren’t as huge as we initially think they are. As long as you acknowledge errors and work to correct them (instead of hiding what happened), mistakes are a learning opportunity. 

It’s not the end of the world when you mess up—it’s an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. The real mistake is trying to cover up errors instead of telling someone and acknowledging what happened.  

Perfectionism: The enemy of productivity

When you try to be perfect, it’s hard to get things done. You might constantly double-check your work, struggle to delegate tasks, and procrastinate when you’re afraid of making mistakes. Furthermore, studies suggest that extreme perfectionism is bad for your mental health, putting you at a higher risk for burnout, job dissatisfaction, and depression. 

Being a perfectionist—or managing one—can be tough. But you can combat the negative effects of perfectionism by normalizing mistakes and talking openly about how to learn from them. This is part of a concept called psychological safety: a belief that your work environment is safe for interpersonal risks—like speaking up with questions, concerns, or mistakes. 

Ultimately, you can still have high standards without trying to be perfect. And if you think about it, you don’t actually want perfect employees, you want solid team processes that help make work as good as it can be. That’s the reason newspapers have editors and copyeditors. They don’t expect a first draft to be perfect—instead, they’ve created a process to provide feedback, improve the initial draft, and nail the finished product. 

What to do if you make a mistake at work

Just messed up? No sweat. Here’s how to process the situation, take action, and move on: 

1. Take a deep breath 

It’s ok to feel frustrated, anxious, and maybe even embarrassed when you make a mistake. But while those emotions are normal, they can stand in the way of good decision-making. That’s why it’s important to process your feelings first, so you can take action later with a level head. 

Take a minute to ride out whatever you’re feeling. Take a deep breath, step away from work, go for a walk, or talk to a trusted friend. Eventually your negative feelings will pass, leaving you much more capable of dealing with the situation.  

2. Tell someone

When you make a mistake, the most important thing is to tell someone before the error gets bigger. Mistakes are rarely as bad as we think, and trying to cover things up can make the situation much worse. Instead, let your manager or a trusted team member know what happened. It’s ok if you don’t have a solution right now—they can help you find one. 

Taking ownership of mistakes is hard, but psychologists agree that learning to deal with admitting faults is essential to sustaining relationships and growing (personally or professionally) in the long run. Ultimately, admitting mistakes doesn’t make you look weak—it actually demonstrates that you have enough strength to be vulnerable and objective about your actions. As a result, your team can trust you to do the right thing in the future, even if it means admitting you messed up. 

3. Acknowledge your mistake 

Once you’ve taken a breather and told someone about your mistake, sometimes you need to acknowledge and apologize for what happened. This doesn’t mean you totally messed up or that you’re bad at your job—it just means that something went wrong and you learned from it. 

When apologizing for a mistake, don’t overdo it. Avoid making excuses, justifications, or talking badly about yourself. Be upfront and polite instead—all you need to say is something like: “Hi (coworker), I made this mistake, and I’m working on correcting it. I’m sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused on your end.” 

4. Brainstorm solutions and capture lessons learned

A big part of making mistakes is learning to bounce back and fix them. If your mistake is something you can fix, make an action plan to remedy the situation. For example, if you forgot to invite a key stakeholder to your project kickoff meeting, send them your meeting notes so they can provide feedback on action items and decisions that were made during the sync.

Not all mistakes can be fixed, and that’s ok too. At the end of the day, the important thing is to learn from your error and make a game plan to avoid the same mistake in the future. To continue with the example above, you could resolve to complete a stakeholder analysis at the start of every project to ensure you’re looping in the right people at the right time.

5. Take care of yourself

Making mistakes takes an emotional toll, and it’s important to take care of yourself and ensure that you’re dealing with negative feelings in a healthy way. Stick to your normal routine rather than working overtime, and avoid isolating yourself from others because of anxiety, embarrassment, or frustration. Take time to step away from work every day and focus on your personal life. Go for a walk outside, cook a healthy meal, spend time with friends or family—all these actions can help take the focus away from your mistake and help you realize that work is just one facet of your life. 

Read: What is work anxiety? 10 tips to overcome your work worries

6. Get perspective

Still feeling down about your mistake? It happens, and you’re not alone in feeling anxious. The thing is, your mistake probably isn’t as bad as you think, and getting some perspective can help you deal with any residual anxiety. 

When people make mistakes, they often fall into one of these “thinking traps”—negative thought patterns that make it hard to get perspective and see a situation for what it really is. If you’re struggling with anxiety about a mistake, take a look at this list to see which “thinking traps” you might be experiencing. 

Black and white thinking: Seeing things as either 100% good or 100% bad. 

  • Example: I made a big mistake and can’t accomplish a certain deliverable. Now my project is ruined. 

  • Solution: Look for shades of gray. Situations are rarely either perfect or totally worthless—try to find at least one silver lining.  

Overgeneralizing: Viewing a mistake as a never-ending pattern of defeat. 

  • Example: I missed another deadline. I’ll never be able to complete projects on time, and nobody will trust me again. 

  • Solution: Remember past successes or positive events. What are things you’ve accomplished in the past that you’re proud of? 

Mind reading: Assuming that other people will think about you negatively because of your mistake. 

  • Example: I was nervous during a presentation and misspoke. Now people will think I’m incapable or unprofessional. 

  • Solution: Remember that you’re not at the center of the universe, and people have other things to do than sitting around thinking negative thoughts about you. When other people made mistakes in the past, was it such a big deal? 

Emotional reasoning: Assuming that if you feel something is true, it must be true.

  • Example: I forgot to bring my notes to a client meeting and got completely flustered. Now I’ll never get the promotion I wanted, and I can’t show my face at work tomorrow. 

  • Solution: Get some distance. How many times in the past has the worst-case scenario actually happened? If 0=breaking a fingernail and 100=nuclear holocaust, what rating would you give the event you’re dealing with right now? Will you remember this mistake in a week, a month, or a year? 

Catastrophizing: Imagining the worst-case scenario and thinking you wouldn’t be able to deal with it.

  • Example: I just bombed a job interview, and my job search is dragging on. Now I’m never going to find a new position, and I’ll lose my apartment when my savings run out.  

  • Solution: Think of all the resources you have available to you—people, places, or things. What’s the first thing you would do if the worst happened? Then what?

Personalizing: Blaming one person (like yourself) for a situation that has many causes. 

  • Example: My initiative failed because I’m bad at project management. I should have managed stakeholders better to make sure tasks were completed on time. 

  • Solution: Remember that nobody is perfect. Focus on creating solutions rather than placing blame. 

Advice for managers: What to do when a direct report makes a mistake

As a manager, the way you act when team members mess up is important. It sets the tone for your team culture and can help your team feel psychologically safe—so employees feel comfortable taking risks without being held back by an overwhelming fear of failure. 

Here’s what to do when one of your direct reports makes a mistake: 

  • Don’t place blame: When someone owns up to their mistake, avoid placing blame on them and telling them it was their fault. Rather, thank them for coming to you, and focus on what happened instead. Help the team member identify the steps you need to take as a team to fix the situation. The same goes if someone owns up to their blunder immediately—show compassion and focus on the issue rather than who’s responsible.

  • Be curious: Instead of making assumptions about what happened, ask questions to understand your team member’s perspective. Practice active listening to internalize what they’re saying and let them know you’re paying attention. That way, you can understand the full picture and get all the information you need to help your team member resolve the mishap. 

  • Communicate in person or over video: When someone on your team makes a mistake, it’s important to visually demonstrate that you’re not upset or angry. Things can get lost in translation over Slack or email, so it’s better to speak face-to-face if you can to avoid miscommunication.

  • Let team members try to figure things out on their own: Mistakes are a natural part of delegating, and it’s ok to let team members make and fix small mistakes on their own—even if you see the mistake coming ahead of time. Instead of jumping in to correct the error, let your employee try to figure things out first. This helps them learn from the situation and build the problem-solving skills and self-confidence they need to resolve their own mistakes in the future. It also demonstrates trust and shows your team member that one slip-up doesn’t make them less valuable. 

  • Make it a learning experience: After giving your team member a chance to resolve their mistake, provide feedback to help them learn from the situation and avoid repeating the same mistake in the future. If you’re comfortable, it can also help to share how you’ve dealt with major mistakes in the past. This helps build trust and demonstrates that mistakes are a normal part of growth. 

  • If mistakes repeat after the first time, brainstorm solutions: When the same mistakes happen over and over again, there may be an underlying issue or behavior that’s keeping your employee from performing at their best. Brainstorm what habits or changes could help prevent the issue in the future—like helping an employee set up calendar alerts if they’re frequently late to meetings.

Don’t try to be perfect—create great processes instead

Mistakes are a part of life, and it’s not realistic to avoid them altogether. Instead, focus on creating solid team processes that allow for misjudgments and errors to occur. For example, instead of trying to produce a perfect product on the first try, create a process that allows you to iterate and improve your product over time. That way, your team can move quickly, take risks, and stay adaptable in the face of change.

Asana’s workflow builder helps you plan, visualize, and streamline team processes. As a result, your team can build workflows that incorporate different layers of feedback and stakeholder input—so you can allow for mistakes and iteration instead of trying to produce a perfect result right away.

Visualize and build workflows with Asana

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