Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How To Bounce Back From A Big Mistake

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery,” James Joyce once said. It may be hard to remember this if you were the guy who incorrectly rerouted some network traffic on Amazon’s Web Services environment, causing the outage that took down the whole network for nearly 24 hours earlier this year.

While your mistakes probably won’t disable thousands of websites, it is in your best interest to limit the damage from a mistake and, most importantly, learn all you can from it.

Here are a few tips on how to effectively bounce back — and grow stronger — when you make a bad call:

1. Own your mistake.

It’s too bad if circumstances were against you, or somebody you counted on failed you, or you just had a bad day. According to Justin Menkes’ wonderful book Better Under Pressure, truly great leaders don’t blame others when things go wrong. They instead have a high “sense of agency,” which is “the degree to which people attribute their circumstances and the outcomes they experience to being within their own control.”

2. Fix it if you can, and tell your leader.

Don’t be a “quiet fixer.” Mistakes often have side effects, and pretending that it didn’t happen is dangerous. In this Harvard Business Review interview, former Toyota chairman Katsuaki Watanabe stated, “Hidden problems are the ones that become serious threats eventually. If problems are revealed for everyone to see, I will feel reassured. Because once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn’t notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them.”

3. Apologize to anyone affected.

Make it a real apology. (“I’m sorry I caused your group all that downtime”), not something lame and self-protective (“I wish it hadn’t happened”). For an example of how NOT to do it, see this video from the Financial Times of former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis “apologizing” for mistakes made during the financial crisis.

4. Reflect on the mistake.

Think about what caused it, and what you did that contributed to the situation. You can’t learn anything from external factors, so forget about them (see #1: you are building a high sense of agency). What can you do differently? This may be easier to do when some time has passed, especially if the mistake and its aftermath were particularly painful or embarrassing. Consider former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Widely vilified for his role in the Vietnam War, it took him 30 years before he wrote a memoir, In Retrospect, in which he finally came to terms with the consequences of his decisions.

5. Address the root cause.

If you systematically reflect on mistakes, you will realize there are patterns in your performance that contribute to these errors. And once you realize that, you are well on the way to fixing that pattern. For example, after missing two customer calls in a brief time, I concluded that I needed to overhaul my organizational system. I spent time over the next several months reading and implementing David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, which made it much easier to juggle many customers at once.

6. Share what you learned.

In some environments, this sharing can be a lifesaver.  In her research on learning in hospitals, Amy Edmondson of Harvard University discovered that the highest-performing nursing units had reported the largest number of mistakes. Not because they made more mistakes, but because they felt safe to report and share the ones they did make.


Adopting these practices may not make mistakes any less embarrassing, but it will help prevent disasters and ensure that you don’t make the same mistake twice. And won’t that allow you to sleep a little easier?

What’s Your Take?

Do you have any best practices for recovering from mistakes?

More insights on: Failure, Risk-Taking

John Caddell

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John Caddell is the author of “The Mistake Bank” and contributed to the most recent 99u book. His latest project is 3-Minute Journal. John also organizes the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. You can reach him at or @jmcaddell on Twitter.  
load comments (31)
  • Wes McDowell

    Well said. Too many people have adopted the “never apologize”approach, which just makes people look even worse than having made the mistake. Was this article prompted by the whole Netflix/Quickster debacle by any chance?

  • Heather Huhman

    Those are some great tips, John! To elaborate on 2, keeping the line of communication between you and your leader or supervisor is essential for your own sake. You don’t want your leader to get the wrong facts or details from someone else. 

  • jmcaddell

    Hi, Wes, I definitely took note of the Netflix situation but have been studying this area for almost five years – including some self-evaluation as well!

    Thanks for your comment.

    regards, John

  • honeysucklelife

    #4 and 5 are the most important steps for me. I take repeating the same mistake as a major failure. Just a little bit of my angst. Thanks for the article!

  • Clubhouse Creative

    #2 mentions my biggest pet peeve. If you screw something up, please don’t think that no one will notice “I’ll just fix it real quick.”

    Someone will notice and it will only cause problems. Plus, if you mention it to someone else they may know best practices for rectifying the mistake.

  • umyr mehmood

    i really enjoyed the whole article, very well said!!!

    everyone should understand that saying the word “SORRY” and admitting our mistake will not make our character down :)

  • jmcaddell

    Very true. I would argue that an authentic, hearfelt apology enhances one’s character. Thanks for commenting!

  • jkglei

    Agreed. Scott actually did a nice 99% post awhile back on the power of apologies. You can check it out here:

  • Rochelle

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Well put, and great tips. :) Look forward to more posts. Enjoy your day. Rochelle. 

  • Eric Johnson MBA

    Excellent article! I love the insights you put into this.  I think a lot of time people think that owning their mistake makes them look bad, untrustworthy or inadequate. No doubt that it taps in to personal fears and inner dialogue as well. However, I believe that when we own our mistakes that it endears people to us and causes them to respect us more.  It further gives other people permission to own their mistakes, and definitely has the potential to transform employees, departments and even companies.  Phenomenal article.

  • jason jarvis

    And remember folks, when you’re sitting with a client, the mistakes of your company are  your mistake and should be treated exactly the same as far as the client can see. 
    The bigger person absorbs the whole thing and does not ship it onto Larry in the packing department or Sanjay the off shore developer. 
    You are off course free to call thos guys and tear them a new one, where appropriate – but that’s not the concern of your client.

  • RM Harrison

    “If you systematically reflect on mistakes, you will realize there are patterns in your performance that contribute to these errors. And once you realize that, you are well on the way to fixing that pattern.”I couldn’t agree more. After several quite embarrassing mistakes (some I am still literally “paying” for), I realized that I have to recognize and admit my limitations. That isn’t to say that I “can’t handle” certain things– but that at the end of the day I am still only one person. And, rather than seeing it as a failure to have to cutback on certain things or just stop altogether, I acknowledge that it is a smart decision that will cost me less embarrassment, time and/or money in the long run.

  • jmcaddell

    I’m very glad you’ve been able to see and “work around” some of your limitations. Like all of us, you’re not perfect – and sometimes rather than fighting through issues that trip you up, it’s better to sidestep them.

    Thanks for commenting.

    regards, John

  • justin bieber quizzes

    the babies are cute…. great work from that…

  • Jennifer Bailey

    #3 seems to be especially difficult for people.  I’m consistently amazed how many pseudo-apologies we get from public figures.  Why is it so hard to own a mistake?


    Nice tutorial and great analysis. Thnx, very useful. 

  • Aleš Kroutil

    What for should Netflix apologize?

  • Boyya Ron

    Great helpful and analyzing…. learned somthing….


  • AlexisH

    I just printed this out and am now going to tape it on my bedroom door, as something to look at when I need a reminder of how to pick up the pieces.  Thank you.

  • Robert Bell

    The graphic preceding the article says it all.  How often do babies give up when they are learning to walk?  Never!  Understand what happened, look around to get a bearing on your position….Get up & GO!

  • mexicalie lazier

    thank you very much for the tips… it helps me a lot..

  • essay online

    This blog is a good one! Its original, thanks for the info! Is there a way I can tell my people about this post.

  • Virgilio Paragas

    Thank you for the tips…i am hoping that i can apply it on my own..

  • lisa

    pick up yourself and try again!

  • manny

    I agree

  • Bhavika Patel

    i loved it

  • aj

    i just made a couple of mistakes i wish i didn’t do. this article helps. but i am still down.

  • uknown

    i have made the most embarrassing mistake ever I was siting in the loungroom playing xbox 360 when I seen my bro’s dog constantly licking his junk. so I tapped his balls he obviously stopped licking just as I turned around his mate was at the window staring in. There were also visitors over they were having a few drinks I think he told not sick like that I would never do that sort of shit to get off. I believe it has ruined any reputation and to have people thinking of me as some sick person that would do shit like that for pleasure. THIS IS FUCKED!

  • Aaron McLean
  • justincresswell

    Yeah. This. You did a nice job of summarizing some logical steps. I’m going to go do them now.

  • Person

    My mistake can’t be fixed

  • Marduk

    I just did the biggest mistake of my life, in such a clear decision making process. I cannot believe I seen it so clear, and in the last minute, literally… I choosen the wrong path. Why ??? Why???

  • Me

    These are very good tips… thank you! Tips number five and six really resonated with me. I’ve never had an issue with owning my mistakes and offering sincere apologies. However, that’s not the norm with my teammates. I see mistakes being made everyday…. and I see fingers being pointed…. people quietly addressing mistakes…. or not addressing issues at all (hoping it will just go away). Funny thing, these are the same individuals progressing in the organization and receiving accolades. I have always taken the high road, because I believe it is the right thing to do. However, I have paid for making my mistakes known because something may appear on my annual performance review. I would like to think I have a strong moral compass, but am questioning if I should continue on this route. Especially when I see my counterparts not admitting to their mistakes, but still moving ahead.

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