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Saying ‘I’m sorry’ when you’ve messed up at work

If you make a mistake at work, own up to it, apologize and start building back trust.

There are many famous quotes on the topic of failure and how it's actually a good thing. But when you make a big mistake at work, it's pretty hard to find the positive in such a negative situation. And reciting famous quotes about failure to your boss is probably not the best way to make amends.

So, how do you say you're sorry when you've screwed up at work? And how can you earn back your boss's/team's/client's trust? Here are some tips.

Own up to it
Professional Development Coach Laine Schmidt says that regardless of who caught the mistake (you or a colleague), you need to immediately own up to it. "Show honesty, humility and a determination to make it right," she says. "This isn't a time to be prideful, but [it's] an opportunity to show that you know how human you are and that while a mistake has been made, you are fine taking the blame and moving forward. Your quick admittance will speak much louder than the mistake."

Go on a short apology tour
Admitting your error is important, but it's just as crucial to show genuine remorse.

"Many of us feel uncomfortable with an admission of error at work, but don't be tempted to hide behind an email; it's always best to say, 'Sorry, I was wrong' or 'I made a mistake' on the phone or in person," suggests Nancy Halpern, principal at KNH Associates. "At times it's also not wise to have an email trail, since emails can get forwarded or misunderstood."

Halpern also says to keep your apology brief and make it clear that you're making changes so that it won't ever happen again. "This is especially important if you're apologizing to someone senior than you," she says.

Focus on what's fixable
While you can't take back a mistake, you may have a chance to minimize its consequences – but you have to act fast. "If there is time to fix this mistake, go ahead and do whatever it takes to fix it so it does not cause any adverse impact to the company," says Juliet Murphy, an executive career coach specializing in coaching executives and mid-level professionals.

Build back trust
"Once you've established why [the error] happened, the best thing you can do to start the rebuilding of trust is to devise a set of actions or safeguards that will prevent the same mistake from happening again," says Lauren McAdams of resumecompanion.com. "Perhaps you need another set of eyes on something before it is released, an email reminder to yourself or an added layer of account security."

And keep it mind, it takes time to gain back trust – it won't happen overnight. "You'll need to rebuild your credibility through hard work, commitment and resilience. Definitely take time to reflect on what you have learned from your mistake – some of the best lessons and insights will be found after the biggest mistakes," McAdams says.

Ready to turn that failure into a learning experience? Check out this article on not letting fear of failure hold you back in your career.