How To Admit To Making A Mistake At Work

Written by Natalia Georgiou Wednesday 18 September 2019
It’s never easy to put your hands up when things go wrong at work. From keeping level-headed to staying truthful, here’s how to have that dreaded conversation – and come out on top.
spilt coffee

Nobody wants to make a mistake – but it’s one of life’s inevitabilities. At one time or another, we’ll have to own up to, and being accountable for, a mistake we’ve made – but is there a right way to admit to making an error at work? We’ve got five tips for how you should go about approaching the problem.

Stay Level

Don’t panic. Running around alerting the townsfolk and ringing the tower bell is a sure-fire way to elevate the situation. James Brooke, author of Be Bulletproof: How to achieve success in tough times, encourages you to “reframe difficult incidents and put knock-backs into perspective so that you can learn from them and move on.”

Managers notice staff that are able to work well under pressure, so becoming overly flustered could hinder your career progression to the higher roles which come hand in hand with higher pressure. “Resilience makes the crucial difference when it comes to performance,” Brookes says – so breathe, think about the situation objectively, and show your reliability in the face of a challenge.

Seek Help Fast

The longer you leave a mistake, the more damage it can cause. Though it’s uncomfortable approaching your manager with a problem, they will appreciate you being responsible and telling them as soon as possible.

“Managers have to let their staff know that it would be in the business’s best interest to admit their mistakes when made,” says James Carfell, HR manager for Collier Roofing who has years of experience in the field. “This way, as a team they can come up with a solution, rather than burying their head in the sand.” Your manager and team are there to help you – just as you’d help them if they made a mistake – so don’t be shy of asking for their help when you need it.

Accept Responsibility

“The one thing a staff member should absolutely not do if they’ve made a mistake is get defensive and argue with management,” says Nancy Elgadi, digital director at the reputation management consultancy Right Angles. Placing the blame elsewhere will only reflect badly on you – which is “precisely why it is key for managers to make sure that their staff know they will always be supported and listened to,” says Elgadi.

Showing accountability in the workplace will help to build resilience to face the different challenges that the workplace throws at you. “Accountability is important [because] each member takes full responsibility on a given task or goal from A to Z,” says John Brown, chief editor at the automotive website Own up to your mistake – use it as a learning curve and take action to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Honesty Is The Best Policy

Though your manager will ask uncomfortable questions about what went wrong, they’re asking to get a better understanding of how to help, rather than who to blame. The details of the story can often hold the answer to the problem, so lying will only be a step backwards.

“Making a mistake is not the end of the world; we all make them because we’re all human. It is what they do next that matters,” says Elgadi. Let your boss know exactly what happened and why, in as much detail as possible. The clearer the information about the error, the better the chance of fixing things. Acting clueless will only indicate that you might make the mistake again, whereas showing full comprehension of why and how something has happened, will show that you know exactly how to prevent this happening again.

Prove Yourself

The ability to think on your feet and creatively problem-solve are highly sought-after traits in the workplace – so draw up a plan that can fix the mistake when you’re ready to approach your manager. “Thinking about a solution to fix it, can also play a large role in helping your managers or leadership team feel that you've got the situation under control,” says Lizzie Benton, culture consultant and founder of Liberty Mind.

Every mistake is a lesson learned, and the ability to turn a negative situation into a positive will leave you coming out on top. James Carfell says: “We learn from our mistakes, so if the process of learning from our failures isn't pushed within a company, then we fail to progress and will continue to make the same errors.” Remember that every mistake may not feel great at first, but opens up the opportunity to learn, grow, and move on.

Related Articles And Resources

Difficult conversations you’re likely to have in your first year of work
Read more about facing difficult conversations head-on in our article covering this topic.

If you're a CMI member you can access tailored resources and support for your professional development in our online resources Portal. Not yet a member? Join CMI now.

Join CMI’s Future Leaders community to network with like-minded individuals, share experiences and get advice:

For any questions or queries please contact: or

Natalia Georgiou

Natalia Georgiou

After graduating in Drama and English from Essex University, I recently transitioned into the creative marketing industry. Currently a Marketing Assistant for AIFS, I specialise in social media and content writing. I run a blog in my spare time too.

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.