3 Steps to Help You Move Past Mistakes at Work

Author: Casey Gale       


PCMA EduCon 2019 attendees watch a session titled “Reframing Failure with a Focus on Success,” which examined reducing the stigma of mistakes. (Jacob Slaton)

We all make mistakes at work from time to time — we’re only human, after all. In a recent New York Times article, author and Smarter Living column editor Tim Herrera gets to the bottom of why we continue to make the same mistakes and, most importantly, how to move forward, in three steps.

Herrera writes that the reason many people keep doing something that they know isn’t working — something that they should probably admit is a mistake — is commitment bias, aka “our tendency to let our past decisions and actions dictate how we behave now and in the future — even if we know we’re being irrational,” Herrera writes. Everyone wants to seem consistent in their work, and “recognizing that a major decision we’ve made was a mistake shatters that image.”

So, the first step toward correcting a mistake might be the hardest — “being honest and critical with yourself and to acknowledge that it was indeed a mistake,” Herrera says. “This is much easier said than done, but unless we’re nakedly candid with ourselves about the mistake itself, there’s no way to move past it.”

Step two, Herrera says, is accepting the mistake without allowing it to impact your work or self-esteem. He references a New York Times piece, “Everyone Fails. Here’s How to Pick Yourself Back Up,” by Rachel Simmons, who pointed out that studies show overthinking mistakes — a problem that more commonly happens to women — can damage a person’s motivation and problem-solving skills, and increase the likelihood of depression.

After recognizing the mistake without allowing it to define your self-worth, Herrera says the next step is to keep calm and carry on by taking baby steps. “Say you have realized and accepted that you made a wrong career choice. Don’t just think of it in terms of just up and quitting tomorrow,” Herrera says, but instead try to find small ways to inch toward a career path that is a better fit. The goal, he writes, is to avoid diving into anything headfirst. “Instead,” he writes, “we want to gradually and methodically build a plan to get where we want to go, step by step.”

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