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how to handle other people’s mistakes like the professional you are


Fiona Tate | Apr 24, 2018 | Photograph by: Joshua Ness

Everybody makes mistakes.  But not everybody handles those mistakes well.  Or at all.

We’ve all come across that person in the office who won’t admit they’ve slipped up, or the person who tries to blame someone else.  Or the person who makes a mistake, apologises with a smile, and then does the exact same thing the following week.

As tempting as it may be to hit the roof, slam your office door, or fire off official warnings, there are better ways to handle things.


The Gentle Approach

The very first thing you must do?  Take some time.  This may mean you have to leave the room for a few minutes, or perhaps you need to physically take a step backwards.  That’s often enough to remind your brain that this is a professional situation, not a personal one.

Once you’re calm enough, speak to the person privately.  But be careful to use a problem-solving approach.  You need to know why the mistake happened, how it happened, and how it could have been avoided.  Perhaps, more importantly, the person that made the mistake needs to know all this too.

There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes if you learn from it and move forward.  Your mother will have told you that, and she was right.


The Not So Gentle Approach

There comes a time when you have to be firm.  Firm, not nasty, mean, or sarcastic but you have to calmly state your position.  If it’s your responsibility to make sure this person does their work properly, then that’s what you need to do.

Once again, you need to have a private conversation with the person.  There’s no point in letting the whole office hear what’s going on, that only makes the worker, and you, look bad.  Your goal here is to stop the mistake from happening again, not to score points against your arch-nemesis.

There may come a time when you have to consider terminating the person’s contract.  If that happens, make sure that you follow the employment laws to the letter.  If possible, make sure you have a witness to every step of the process. That will protect everyone involved.


What if it’s a co-worker and I have no authority over them?

The gentle approach is still the best place to start.  Don’t fix the problem for them but show them how to fix it themselves.  Your role as a co-worker should be to support the person, as you would anyone else that was having a problem.  And the end goal is still the same, you want to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

It can be a very frustrating situation to be in if your co-worker’s mistake reflects badly on you.  You need to make it clear who owns the mistake and who is responsible for fixing the mistake.  And you may need to do that by “going higher up.”  The problem with this, of course, is that it can often make you feel like you’re a 7-yr-old telling tales.

You’re not.  You’re an adult who has to deal with an adult situation.  That means staying calm, doing what you need to do, and acting in a way that won’t make you unable to look at yourself in the mirror anymore.

Put yourself in their shoes.  How would you like to be managed?




Natalie Hughes founded Miss Independent in 2017, to educate and mentor women and help them make their best career and business decisions. Natalie is an experienced business woman and non-executive company director focused on organisational design, strategy, growth and innovation. Her goal is to help you think differently, work differently and feel in control of your own destiny.

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