How to Make Up When You Screw Up

We’ve all done it — even the best of colleagues. We missed a deadline because we thought we had more time than we actually did; we lost our cool at a coworker because we thought we’ve already answered that question several times over; we botched a deal because we didn’t do enough research beforehand. Regardless, now our coworker or boss is upset with us, and we don’t know what to do.
Making amends with your coworkers can be one of the most important things you learn to do in the workplace, and it is something that can’t easily be taught. Different coworkers will have different styles of resentment and disappointment, and will have different thresholds for forgiveness. What you may do to earn the mercy or forgiveness of one coworker may not be near enough to earn it from another. The important thing is to know that there is something you have to do to make amends and restore yourself in the eyes of your coworkers.
Forgiveness, Not Just Mercy
What you want to do is earn their forgiveness, not just their mercy. A person acts mercifully towards another when they believe the other person would be deserving of punishment, but forgoes giving that punishment (punishment in this case can be anything from a demotion to a firing to simply not trusting that coworker any longer). Mercy is based on an internal feeling of the person who feels like they were wronged. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is given once you have convinced the other person that your wrongdoing was a fluke and that you would not be susceptible to it again, so punishment would be uncalled for.
Forgiveness, then, is a process by which you show your colleague that the blunder you made was a fluke, and was something that you have accounted for and will not let happen in the future. Know that your colleague feels resentful towards you because you let them down. They had an expectation in their mind that you would complete something in a certain way, and you did not meet that expectation. Just like when a friend doesn’t meet our expectations of what we consider “friendship,” we can sometimes not meet the standards of what our colleagues consider workplace competency.
Before going about earning forgiveness, first consider if the expectation was realistic. You don’t want to help them reinforce that expectation if it is something you are actually not capable of meeting. If their expectation is too high, have an honest conversation and let them know that their standards are simply too high and that you will do your best to meet all demands, but some are simply unrealistic. If this requires you to learn a new skill set, assure them you will do that. Let them know the standards are high not to complain, but so that they can adjust their expectations. Once you learn the skills or work stamina necessary to meet these standards, they may readjust. The important thing is that they won’t be nearly as disappointed in you in the short-term while you learn up to those standards.
But much of the time we simply screw up. As much as we’d like to believe it is because our colleagues have unrealistic standards, it may just be that we miscalculated how much time we’d have, we prioritized things differently than they did, or we simply forgot. In these circumstances, the impetus is on you to assure your colleagues that this isn’t a character trait of yours.
Acknowledge that you are aware of the shortcoming. Without this acknowledgement, your coworkers may simply assume you know, and they may then not acknowledge to you when they themselves screw up. Ben Horowitz describes in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things that the worst corporate cultures are those where bad news, or simply news of screw ups, doesn’t travel quickly. People either assume others know about it, which creates a knowledge disparity in the organization, or actively keep information from others, which helps foster greater resentment. When things go awry, make it clear that you know. This not only helps you earn your colleagues’ forgiveness, but it also sets a good precedent for the culture.
Once you’ve acknowledged that something went awry, assure your colleagues that this won’t happen again. This is not only good for them to hear, but it is also good for you to have a standard to which you can hold yourself. Send it via email or message, so you know it has been done and you can’t try to squirm your way out of admitting, “Yes, I screwed up. No, it won’t happen again.”
Get S*it Done
Saying things won’t go terribly again is one thing, but making sure they won’t is another. Once you’ve made it clear you know you screwed up, make a clear and concerted effort to guarantee it doesn’t happen again. This doesn’t simply mean “do it right this time,” it means, “do it right x1000 this time.” Go above and beyond. Make the value you contribute to the organization clear. Now your coworkers will have good, solid reason to think you won’t do it again, and to think of you for all the value you add to the organization. If you blew a media piece at a mid-tier outlet, the next time around land a media piece at a top-tier outlet with greater reach. If you didn’t correctly format a spreadsheet because you didn’t put the work in to it, the next time around you should make a robust sheet. Simply show your colleagues why they decided to work with you.
In short, to begin to earn your colleague’s forgiveness, you have to give them reason to believe that you won’t make a habit of falling short. Doing this means you need the humility to show them you aren’t above making mistakes, and the competence to not only hit the next ball, but to make a grand slam out of of it.