Failure is always a difficult pill to swallow. No one wants to fail— though certainly some of us struggle with the fear of failure more than others. Failure at work represents more than just emotional risks, like shame and guilt. It can also put our job security and professional reputation in danger. This creates still more fear of failure, and it doesn’t do anything to help us bounce back when we do make mistakes. So how can we deal with failures at work in a way that atones for our mistakes and doesn’t encourage us to dwell in guilt and shame?
In this article, we’ll explore failure at work and discuss how you can not only overcome it but learn from it.
Why is failure at work so devastating?
We are concerned about job and financial security. Most of us can’t afford to lose our jobs because of a mistake— we have bills to pay, children, and family members to support. So while most failures at work won’t result in job loss, it’s always a concern when we feel we haven’t met expectations.
We feel a strong sense of responsibility and pride in our jobs. This is a great thing, and it’s what makes work enjoyable and purposeful. But the more we conflate our self-worth with our job performance, the harder it is to cope with mistakes and failures.
We feel a duty to our coworkers. Like number two, this is one of the foundations of a happy and productive working life. By the same token, when we make mistakes, we might feel that we’ve let down not only ourselves but also our coworkers, who will have to pick up the slack.
Failure makes us question our identity
Failure can make us question everything we thought we knew about ourselves. All of us have internalized beliefs and judgments about ourselves. But no one is perfectly consistent 100% of the time, which means we will inevitably sometimes defy our expectations. Maybe we expect ourselves to work hard, and yet we slack off one afternoon, and our brief laziness causes us to miss an important meeting. Perhaps we consider ourselves to be reliable and kind, and yet we aren’t available for a coworker when they need advice on a challenging work issue.
This is where some perspective can be helpful. Is this failure you’re so concerned about representing an ongoing issue, or just a one-time mistake? Don’t let one lapse in judgment throw your entire identity into upheaval because mistakes happen to everyone.
How to overcome failure
Take some time to process your emotions.
Because of all the reasons mentioned above, failure is difficult to accept! It can take some time to accept that we don’t always live up to our standards for ourselves or even the standards others place on us. Failure conjures up feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, sadness, confusion, and frustration. It may even remind us of past failures that we haven’t dealt with yet. To repair our mistakes, make amends, and do better in the future, we have to devote some time to work through those feelings.
Recognize the difference between productive and unproductive emotions.
You owe it to yourself to acknowledge the emotions that come up for you in any given situation. But all of these emotions are not necessarily helpful. For example, anger can be a powerful motivator for change (e.g., “I can’t believe I did that! I’ll be more careful next time.”) or a method for deflecting blame (“Someone else should have stepped in. This isn’t my fault.”). On the other hand, sadness can be a natural response to disappointment (“I wish I hadn’t let my coworkers down.”) or a precursor to despair (“I always mess things up. I’ll never accomplish my goals.”).
It’s okay to feel your feelings without judgment, but remember that action is the key to moving on.
Make things right.
Now that you’ve worked through your own personal response, it’s time to take responsibility. Apologize to anyone you disappointed, with sincerity and a commitment to do better next time. If there’s anything you can do to take responsibility for the repercussions, like extra work that has come about due to your mistake, then do so. This is your best chance at closure, so do your best to make amends and leave things on a positive note with everyone involved.
It might take a while before you get your self-confidence back after making a big mistake at work. You could become self-conscious or overly hesitant. Regardless of how you respond, try to dig deep and remember why you enjoy your work each day. What about your job makes it worth persevering when things feel difficult? Maybe it’s our coworkers, your family at home, or your commitment to excellence in your work.
Whatever it is, reconnect with that purpose and remember that failures are temporary.
Accept the imperfection.
It’s not easy to feel like you’ve let yourself down, but we all do it from time to time. Instead, try not to catastrophize it; rather, accept that it happened, process your emotions, make it right, and then move on. If it’s chronically difficult for you to accept even small mistakes without beating yourself up, you might be a perfectionist. You can check out our article about overcoming perfectionism.
Share your experiences.
It’s much easier to catastrophize and inflate our mistakes when we’re alone; when we voice our concerns to friends or family, they remind us that things usually turn out fine. But, unfortunately, failure has a way of isolating us from the people we love. That’s why an essential piece of moving on from failure is being honest about the experience with people we trust.
Learn from it.
Once you have sufficient distance from the incident, consider revisiting what happened. Are there any takeaways for you? How did the incident resolve? Are you happy with the way you handled the feelings of failure? Don’t be too critical of yourself; instead, gently evaluate whether your actions match up with your ideals, and consider what you can do to better respond next time.
We all experience failure from time to time. Feeling overwhelmed with guilt, embarrassment, and shame after failure at work is completely normal. Pick yourself back up and keep going!