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Office Hours: How to Own Up to a Mistake at Work

Admitting to a work screw-up is like knowing CPR. You want to be good at it, but not because you’ve had a lot of real-life practice. It’s also like CPR in the sense that the slower you are to act, the worse the outcome is likely to be.

To help you know what to do on the spot, we asked two senior executives—both have seen and heard it all—for their advice on the best way to own up to a mistake.

Bobbi Dangerfield
SVP of Global Business Services, Dell EMC
Board Member, TX Conference for Women

“Whether you’re talking to a boss, colleague or underling, it’s important to be truthful and transparent and to take full responsibility. Nothing tarnishes your reputation and brand faster than blaming others.

“Come to the conversation with the potential impact of the mistake and a solution to fix the problem quickly. Make sure your reaction matches the weight of the mistake—overreacting or underreacting can do more harm than good. Be prepared to accept the consequences and do what it takes to make it right; this may mean putting in extra hours until the problem is solved.

“After you’ve made amends, move on. Yes, take the time to reflect on this mistake and learn from it, but keep perspective: we’re all human, and mistakes happen.”  

Stacey Clark Ohara
Global Head, Juniper Foundation/ Diversity & Inclusion

“First, never be afraid to make a mistake. It’s an inevitable outcome of acting boldly and taking risks, which are part of striving for success. Mistakes can lead to unexpected opportunities, while avoiding risk out of the fear of mistakes is likely to stunt our creativity and stymie innovation.

“Errors have a negative connotation, but we can almost always turn them into a positive. To do that, you just have to be open and honest about them. I would recommend sitting down with someone rather than phoning or sending an email. I would lay out the facts, spell out the fix and point out what I’ve learned. If you’re like me, you’ll find that doing this in a confident manner is empowering.

“Mistakes are how we grow and know that we’re being stretched. But try not to make the same one twice. By taking time to study what happened, we can use the experience as a learning opportunity. (Was it a question of being unprepared? Having misunderstood something or someone?) Once we know what led to our error in the first place, we can demonstrate our improved insight and move forward with confidence.”

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