According to a recent survey by Deloitte, the top cause of stress for workers was realizing that they had made a mistake.
Of the 23,000 people surveyed, 82% said this caused them stress at work. (A challenging workload and "moments of conflict" like getting reprimanded or delivering a difficult message tied for second place, at 52%.)
This isn't a healthy or productive situation. Mistakes are inevitable, especially if your job has grown in scope or responsibility or the pace of business has changed. Telling yourself to avoid mistakes at all costs will just lead to even more anxiety. It can also stifle your creativity (and possibly raise the anxiety levels of everyone around you).
While you can’t avoid mistakes entirely, you can increase your ability to bounce back quickly and productively after you make one. Here are six strategies to help you recover after making a mistake at the office.
Acknowledge the mistake promptly
If you hand in sales projections and your boss points out you missed the most recent quarterly data, don’t get defensive: I didn’t know you meant year-to-date! Own up to the gaffe as one professional to another: You’re right, I only included figures up to the 1st quarter. I’ll have a new table on your desk in an hour (or as soon as it can reasonably be done).
Apologize directly and personally to people who were inconvenienced
If your faulty sales projections meant that your group presentation fell flat, apologize to each member of your team after the meeting: I dropped the ball on the sales analysis. I’ll redo it and hand it in separately. I’m sorry for the mistake. Don’t denigrate yourself too much, or you risk looking like you’re trolling for sympathy—then you’d be inconveniencing your colleagues twice.
Set a time limit for your feelings
Even after you’ve acknowledged the mistake and done all you can to fix it, you probably still feel badly about it. Your mind may even replay the painful moments leading up to the mistake. If you find yourself replaying or overanalyzing the mistake, allow yourself to work through those feelings—but set a time limit of, say, 15 minutes. Set a timer and vent with abandon. But once the timer rings, switch to another task.
Focus on facts over feelings
Sometimes your feelings just run rampant and you stress over possible consequences: Will I get fired? Did I blow my performance bonus? Does everyone think I’m stupid? When your imagination is running this wild (and negative), it helps to orient yourself towards information, instead of feelings. Peak performance coach Renita Kalhorn of Step Up Your Game Now calls this the “Just the facts” strategy. You can’t know for certain if people think you’re stupid, so what can you know for certain?
Let’s say you saw that your colleague Bob smirked at you when you presented your faulty sales table. You know for certain he smirked. It could be because he believes you’re an idiot and will hold onto that judgment forever. Or he could have been reacting to something completely unrelated to you. If you force yourself to focus on the facts and not your feelings, you’ll realize it’s likely just your imagination getting the best of you.
Develop helpful habits that preempt future mistakes
Double-checking your work is a helpful habit that is also a productive response to the fear of making a mistake. Budgeting extra time when you plan projects so you don’t rush is another good practice. Learning strategies to increase your resilience and mental toughness is a good ongoing habit to develop (reading Kalhorn’s blog is one good resource). Running a dress rehearsal of your big presentation or client pitch is yet another way to identify mistakes early, in a lower stakes environment.