Learning From Workplace Mistakes

Learning From Workplace Mistakes

As I recollect my most excellent mistakes at work, one stands out as the clear winner…many years ago I worked for a company whose primary communication was voicemail. You would dial into a main number and hit a code/extension and you were able to leave a message for someone. So, if I needed to connect with my boss I would dial his extension and leave a message of things I needed to discuss or updates. If I needed to leave a voicemail for my team, the extension was different. Do you see where I am going with this?

I accidentally dialed my team’s extension to leave a message for my boss. On that one message I left information about pay rates, corrective actions, people who annoyed me…that my WHOLE team had access to. It was almost bizarre how much detail I included in that message. It was a HUGE, embarrassing, regrettable, and humbling mistake and one that was not easy to recover from with my team but – ultimately – we got passed it and I realized that I had some growing up to do as a leader and, it was then, I realized I worked with some really great people who were willing to forgive [though I doubt they forgot]. Had it not been absolutely mortifying it would have been hilarious. I had two options, face it or run away from it. Total disclosure – I wanted to quit [it was that tragic]! But, I knew I had to face this stupid mistake I’d made and clean it up.

Since this incident I have made a million more mistakes – I make them on a daily basis. We all do. Emotionally intelligent and self-aware people use these moments to learn and grow from. In almost every area of retail we encounter crises – on a daily basis – of some sort.

When I first started my professional career I worked with a fabulous group of executive leaders and they were so “together”…I swore they could do no wrong. My first Director of Stores was amazing, I studied her and truly admired her perfection. She was smart, talented, stylish, gorgeous, and confident. Her career, her family, her choices, all so perfectly planned and executed. Once I truly got to know her and we would have dinner and travel stores together, she was very transparent and honest about her career – her wins, her short-comings, and her aspirations and she was not as put together as I initially suspected [which made me value her leadership and what I learned from her even more]. It was then that I realize that the moment you stop comparing yourself to the person next to you is the freeing instant you realize that everyone has made and will make mistakes, and everyone’s mistakes are worth learning from.

How To Move On After You’ve Messed Up At Work

Mistakes are going to happen, more frequently then we would like them to. How we manage them once we’ve created them is going to determine a large part of our leadership reputation and it also serves to influence our team member’s and colleague’s reaction/response to their own mistakes. Here are some suggestions on how to move forward after a big “whoops”:

Hope For The Best – But Prepare For The Worst:

  • When you believe there is a potential issue ahead, it is best to trust your instincts and create a strategy to identify and address the challenges you will face. Do not use hope as a strategy (ever!) but me mindful and aware so that you can deal with the issue(s) as they arise.

Allow Yourself To Feel Horrible [But Only For Only A Minute]:

  • It is 100% natural to feel frustrated with yourself, embarrassed, anxious, and/or even distressed for a minute or two. But there is a fine line between taking a moment to let your mistake sink in but recognizing you are not a victim…YOU made a mistake and YOU have to fix it. A tiny shadow of anxiety may linger around the error, but in general, you need to pick yourself up quickly and start working on the problem to resolve/repair it.

Be A Committed Problem Solver:

  • Stay Calm: In a crisis, people tend to get anxious. Maintaining a sense of zen-like calm will not only allow you to think more clearly but will also set the tone for those around you that the issue is being handled and that nothing is too big to overcome.
  • Get Focused: Mistakes are inevitable and necessary for growth. Instead of harping on them, choose to focus on your recovery, rather than focusing solely on correcting the mistake. Of course – you’re accountable for the mistake, but it’s also important to own the error publicly if need be and show resilience by moving forward.
  • Determine Your Action Plan: It is time to fix the mistake. Who do you need to involve? What resources will support fixing the mistake? How quickly can it be repaired?

Re-categorize Your “Miss”:

  • A colleague of mine re-categorizes their “misses” into missions. The definition of a mission is “a preestablished and often self-imposed objective or purpose“. Once you reclassify it and extract the embarrassment out of it, it is a learning opportunity. Seeing our mistake as something we cannot come back from causes us to relinquish potential gain in favor of remaining comfortable and implies that we lack control over our actions and results. That is rarely, if ever, the case  – so look at it for what it really is.

Own It:

  • Be authentic when you take responsibility for the mistake. This is a step that most people don’t bother to try – it is easier to assign blame or fib about how the error occurred, but it’s higher and less travel road to own it – so there’s less competition there. A genuine “mea culpa” goes a long way.  When you admit fault, you eliminate the opportunity for others to assign blame or elevate your error.

Share Your Story:

  • It is likely that you have people looking at you and admiring your leadership, your style, your personality at work. Let them know you are a flawed and fabulous human being and that it’s okay for them to be one too. Your actions – as you clean up your mess – will go a long way in turning your mistake [even the bigger ones] into a hilarious retrospective story one day.. Mistakes only define someone’s reputation when they are not owned, not fixed. and not learned from.

Next time you have a professional misstep, make a mistake, and/or are involved in a misunderstanding, remember to take a deep breath and be your own best brand manager by remaining calm, seeking the solution and seeing the challenge as an opportunity to lead and learn. Mistakes are unpleasant. Often they have real consequences that can leave a scar or two. But no matter how large your mistake(s), your success and your leadership will still outweigh them.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am a passionate and creative leader and coach committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog about how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations. I help create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability.

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