How to Regain Your Confidence After Messing Up At Work

So, you botched something. It happens. This is how you regain your footing — and find some perspective — no over-apologizing necessary.

by Jesse Will
Originally Published: 
Man with regained confidence walking towards his place of work.

As a parent, you might start to think that your best days as a “worker” are behind you. The schedule you might have set in your 20s as an up-and-comer in the workplace no longer makes sense, because you have different priorities now. Your time is limited.

So unless you are a truly excellent delegator of tasks, you might be entering more meetings underprepared than you used to. While you have a better idea of big-picture problems and how to avoid them these days, you might miss the small stuff you would have caught as a younger go-getter. So it goes.

And then there are times when you just blow it. Life happens. Kids take the priority. Your work suffers. You make a mistake. It’s not a lose-your-job mistake, but it may paint you differently in the eyes of your managers and co-workers. Or at least you feel that way.

So how do you recover? By having some self-compassion, says Dr. Kristen Neff, an associate professor in the University of Texas department of educational psychology and a pioneer in the field of self-compassion. “It’s an unconditional attitude to yourself,” says Neff. “It’s being aware of when you underperform, and acknowledging it, but responding with kindness rather than overburdening yourself with self criticism.”

1. Apologize. But don’t over-apologize.

You might have learned to never say you’re sorry at work — it’s just work, after all. That can be helpful, especially if you’re early in your career, or come from the midwest, where we grow up learning to say “I’m sorry” for just about any reason. But as you make progress and climb the ladder, as they say, simply telling a superior or a co-worker a tactful “I’m sorry” can carry a lot of weight.

“When you apologize and make it clear that you actually understand why you're wrong, and how you’re committed to not doing it again, your experience will likely be a good one,” says Dr. Neff.

Perhaps family priorities didn’t allow you the time to prepare for a meeting you needed to lead, so you had to ad-lib through a half hour zoom call in front of 30 attendees, as you verbally danced over the same three PowerPoint slides. It’s okay. You wasted some people’s time. You can acknowledge to your boss that you weren’t as prepared for that meeting as you wanted to be without getting into the nitty gritty of how crazy your family’s schedule is these days. Commit to doing better.

2. Parent yourself.

When you screwup at work, you may tend towards a fatalist internal narrative: I’m an idiot; I’m worthless; the project will fail; everyone knows I’m the weak link.

Take a deep breath. Most likely, none of these things are true. And besides, why would you talk to yourself like this? Imagine that you heard your kid saying this kind of stuff in the car ride home from school, or a soccer game. Aside from the fact that those kind of statements are factually incorrect and just eroding to the self esteem, they’re also not helpful for self-improvement.

To create a kinder internal dialogue ask yourself: would you say these things to a loved going through a similar situation, or your child?

“If your kid doesn’t do their homework, you don’t call them a stupid idiot, right? But neither do you tell them that it isn’t a problem,” says Dr. Neff. “A good parent would say ‘How can I help you?’ or “Do you need help with your study routine?’ They offer constructive advice in order to motivate a child when they fail. And what works for our kids, often works for ourselves, too.”

3. Step forward with a solution.

While you might feel the urge to divulge to your boss or co-workers exactly why you didn’t have time to thoroughly read a case study or prepare for a meeting after the fact, don’t do that. That’s the case even if your story is interesting, like your kid swallowed a toy and you spent an evening pacing around urgent care. (Well, maybe tell that one.) Instead of explaining why you made a bad decision or you weren’t prepared, which may sound like an excuse, come armed with a solution. Bring in a plan that might fix the problem (this is a key aspect of managing up). Think of a creative way to cover the ground you lost.

4. Learn and improve.

We all screw up. But when we dwell on what we did wrong, we tend to set limits on what might be possible in the future. “When you respond to a mistake with encouragement and support as opposed to harsh criticism, the research clearly indicates that you become less afraid of failure,” says Dr. Neff. When you’re not scared to take risks, you open yourself to inventive, creative thinking— the kind of thing that can pay off big as you progress in your career.

5. Keep it in perspective.

As a parent, you may already have some help with this one, but: your work is not your life. To get back on track, don’t dwell on what went wrong. Move onward. If your work is changing the world, that’s great. And even if you’re not saving lives, you’ll likely do better at your job (and be more personable) if you have an even keel and understand that the entire planet doesn’t teeter on every workplace dilemma you have.

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