What You Should Do When You Fail at Work

January 29, 2018

Exactly what you should do if you fail at work, whether it be a screw up or an outright failure.

Failing at work sounds like the absolute worst thing you can do in your career.

Well, it isn’t.

First off, if you never fail at all, either you are incredibly lucky or (much more likely) you aren't taking big enough risks. So, not failing at all is actually a bad sign, as it means you aren't growing.

Sometimes, you fail not because you tried something new, but because you just screwed up. That’s not ideal, but it’s not awful. What is awful – not owning your failure or trying to sweep it under the rug.

In other words, the cover up is almost always worse than the crime. The cover up is where you get in real trouble – even lose your job – as it means your boss can’t trust you.

So, what should you do when you fail at work? How can you curb the negative, or potentially even turn it into a positive? 

The 3 things you should do if you fail at work

In her LinkedIn Learning course Learning to Be Promotable, Leadership Expert Lisa Earle McLeod said you need to do three things if you fail at work. They are:

    1. Get ahead of it – tell your boss before your boss finds out.

Here’s something we tend to do the exact opposite of. When we make a mistake, we usually do everything we can to ensure our boss doesn’t find out about it.

Well, if it’s a big mistake they are going to find out, and it’s only going to be worse if they discover you tried to hide it. So, be upfront and tell them about the failure.

The secret here? Be brief.

“That doesn't mean omitting important details or glossing over relevant information, but remember, your boss is listening thinking, ‘What's the point?’,” McLeod said. “So, you want to get to it quickly. The harder you make it to understand, the more complicated a resolution will seem in the eyes of your boss.”

    2. Don’t make excuses. Own it.

Don’t blame others or some outside force for the failure. Instead, take responsibility. That shows your boss you are willing to grow.

“Good bosses want you to learn from your failures, so show them that you already have,” McLeod said.

McLeod gave a great metaphor, comparing it to martial arts. Rather than going against the failure by being defensive, go with the energy – like the teach you to do in martial arts – and talk about how you can correct it moving forward.

    3. End it on a positive note.

Not always, but most of the time you can end the failure conversation with your boss on a positive note.

For example, let’s say you took a gamble and it didn’t pay off. Acknowledge that – the positive is you learned what didn’t work in the market, which brings you one step closer to determining what will work.

Or, say you screwed up due to a weakness of yours. Here’s where you can say how you plan on improving that weakness – maybe via an online course, maybe through a mentor. This again ends the conversation on a positive note, as you show your boss you are working toward a solution and developing yourself as a professional.

“This won't be as positive as a win might be, but the conversation should end in some type of resolution, or at least a next step,” McLeod said.

A tip for small-to-mid-sized mistakes: “Thank you” is better than sorry

The following three tips are for big mistakes. But what if you make a little mistake – like you are running late or got an order wrong?

McLeod has a tip – instead of saying sorry, say thank you. So, if you are late, say, “Thank you for your patience.” Or, if you screw up an order, say, “Thank you for giving us the chance to make this right.”

“Sometimes we jump to, ‘Oh, I'm sorry,’ as a way to deflect or mitigate a situation, but that actually takes you out of the power seat,” McLeod said. “In smaller situations, people respond to ‘Thank you’ better than they do ‘I'm sorry.’ If it's a slightly bigger mistake… (thank you) takes ownership, but it doesn't go into negative or wallowing.”

Again, this only applies to small-to-mid-sized mistakes. For big mistakes, a sorry is likely necessary.

The takeaway: Recovering from failure starts with accepting yourself

When you look at McLeod's three steps, you realize recovering from a failure comes down to a mindset. And that mindset is accepting that you will make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean you are an idiot or bad at your job.

All it means is you are human. Accept that and follow the steps above the next time you fail. They'll ultimately lead to a stronger relationship with your boss.

Want to learn more? Watch McLeod's full course, Learning to Be Promotable.

Other LinkedIn Learning courses you might be interested in are: