Wright Foundation | October 8, 2019

Mistakes at Work:
What to Do if You Screw Up

Everything is going along smoothly at the office…until you make a big mistake!

Mistakes at work are part of life. Rather than stressing out and beating yourself up, what if you identified the opportunity in your screw up?


Maybe you deleted an important file, crashed the server, or offended a client (or your boss). You instantly feel fear and perhaps even anger. How did you let this happen?

First of all, none of us is perfect. Every single person makes the occasional error. Mistakes at work are part of life.

The way to rectify the situation is to stop beating yourself up and get proactive about the solution. Here’s what to do when you screw up and make mistakes at work.

Mistakes Are Inevitable

The biggest problem I’ve seen when people make mistakes at work is their internal voice starts beating them up. Often, the voice inside your head is your worst critic. You mess up and then spend time ruminating. You replay the moment over and over, long after everyone has moved on.

Now, it’s easy to get stuck in the place of self-criticism. Most of us are much harder on ourselves than anyone else. Most of us would never tolerate a friend talking to us or tearing us apart like our internal voice.

Similarly, most of us wouldn’t talk to a friend as harshly as we speak to ourselves. A quick test to see whether you’re too hard on yourself: say the same words that are playing in your head, but direct them at a close friend. If the thought makes you cringe, then you’re probably stuck on self-critiquing rather than learning. Stop punishing yourself.

When you realize you royally screwed up, what should you do?

You can’t undo a mistake. Hiding it away or trying to cover it up, will only lead to stress, fear, shame, and more self-criticism. You may fix a mistake or come up with a resolution if you’re honest and proactive about it.

Instead of replaying your mistake over in your mind, what if you celebrated mistakes? Does the idea of celebrating sound outlandish? What if you viewed mistakes as an exciting way to learn something new, discover a different strategy, or re-route your approach to a problem?

Learning to make mistakes and celebrate them is an important skill to build. It’s one many people lack because most people won’t put themselves out there. Most won’t allow themselves to keep failing multiple times. They mess up, throw up their hands, and quit.

When this happens, they’re missing out on a powerful opportunity to bring about an even better outcome.

Set Yourself Up for…Mistakes?

You see, we all make mistakes. We all fall at some point. If you look at pro athletes, entrepreneurs, or successful authors, they all have something in common: they’ve all messed up. Most athletes fail constantly. They get injured. They miss the mark. They strikeout. Because they get back up and keep playing, they end up stronger and more successful.

Many successful entrepreneurs will tell you that they had to make many mistakes before they built a successful venture. I often advise those entering the career field to wait and learn before jumping into becoming your own boss. Don’t quit your day job. It’s not because they can’t succeed, but because failures are an inevitable part of the journey.

Authors and other creatives understand rejection and mistakes too. To get a book published, many authors go through brutal edits and rejection after rejection. When we hear about someone’s overnight success, it’s an outlier, not the norm. Most people struggle for years before ever finding success in creative fields. Why do you think so many actors work as bartenders and waitresses? Rejection is part of the game.

The truth of the matter is, we all face moments where we mess up. We might fall behind, send the wrong message, offend someone, or mess up an order. You aren’t perfect, and neither am I. It’s part of being human.

One of the assignments we give our students during their Year of More training is to go out and INTENTIONALLY make mistakes! Wow! Imagine putting yourself out there to screw up? For some people, this prospect is daunting and even terrifying.

But what our students quickly discover is that the world really doesn’t give a shit about the mistakes they make. It’s no big deal. This realization is often a shocking discovery. Most people lead their lives so afraid of disappointing others (or themselves) that they always play it safe.

Big Mistakes Lead to Big Break Throughs

While everyone makes mistakes, most of the world doesn’t make mistakes big enough to change their trajectory. They haven’t screwed up or messed up where they’re forced to learn and grow. Most people create too many internal strategies of self-criticism rather than self-celebration.

You see, growth is often a painful process. Remember, as a child, when you would experience growing pains? Or perhaps you’ve trained for a sporting event, only to feel sore every night as you built new muscle.

Like our bodies, our minds find growth uncomfortable. Many choose to keep the status quo and stay in a comfortable, but stagnant spot. Rather than face the pain of growth, they zone out and stay in a fog.

But if we want to live vibrant lives—lives filled with purpose and meaning—then we need to break out of our comfort zone. So you make a fool of yourself. So you screw up. So you feel embarrassed. So what? Most of the world barely notices anyway.

Your mistake doesn’t happen so you can feel shame and disappointment. Mistakes offer us an opportunity to push ourselves further and learn.

So, the next time you make mistakes, ask yourself, “what is the lesson here?” March forward, take responsibility for your screw up, extract the lesson, and keep moving forward. If you make mistakes at work, ‘fess up. Admit what happened, offer your plan to deal with it. Most importantly, extract the lesson from experience.

You may learn you need to adjust, and course correct. You may discover your current path or situation isn’t serving you. You may need to think about what you want and get honest with yourself about your situation.

The most crucial step is to figure out what you need to do to get back in the game immediately. Don’t wait or sit on the sidelines filled with rumination or regret. Move forward. Get back up, dust yourself off, and learn the lesson.

For more on empowerment, visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming More Life Training, where you’ll connect with others on their transformational journey. We’re also pleased to announce that many of our courses are now available for download at a special introductory price. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn and grow!

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.