The Right Way to Screw Up

Chris Algiere
April 19, 2017

Screwing up in the workplace is bound to happen, especially in a fast-paced startup atmosphere. Things are moving fast and everyone, including the founder, screws up. It's part of what makes the journey exciting, painful, and rewarding.

The important thing is that you screw up the right way, handling mistakes in a way that garners respect, and even admiration.

Since I’ve got a lot of experience in the subject matter, I’ve decided to share some of my screwed up wisdom with you. This is kind of directed at people just joining the workforce, but to be honest, it could apply to anyone at any stage in their career who’s never screwed up effectively before. Without further delay, here is my step-by-step guide to screwing up, the right way:

Step One: Screw Up

Now that we’ve mastered step one, let’s move on to step two.

Step Two: Take Ownership

Step two starts with either realizing you screwed up bigtime by yourself, or having someone else call you out on screwing up. Either way, it’s what you do next that will shape the way people perceive you. Instead of worrying about consequences, it’s best to view this mortifying point in time as an opportunity to elevate the perception of your character.

The first thing you need to do is take ownership of the mistake. A simple “I messed this up,” or “I apologize, this is my fault” will do. If the fault is truly yours, you don’t want to get defensive because that just sets up the following conversation to be in the form of an argument - one you will surely lose since, well, you screwed up.

Ever hear the phrase “the cover up was worse than the crime”? That’s what I’m talking about here. Don’t try to cover up your mistake with a babbling story. Simply accept the facts and move on. Think about it this way - the sooner you accept fault and move towards correcting it, the sooner the people you’re apologizing to will do the same. People are generally forgiving, especially to someone without much experience.

Step Three: Shut Up and Listen

Step three can really suck, I’m not going to lie to you, but it’s probably not even close to the worst thing you’ve had to endure in your life, so grin and bear it. At this step you’ll likely have to face some admonishment from your boss or team members. So do this:

Sit up and display positive and receptive body language. Look them in the face and listen to what they have to say without interrupting. They may say some things you disagree with, but it’s best to let them finish. When they’re done, we’re on to the next step where you want to do two things:

Show them you were listening, and give them specific actions you will do to correct the mistake or to avoid it the next time.

Step Four: Create a Specific Action Plan

You’ve owned up and you’ve taken the criticism like a professional. Now it’s time to give your boss the confidence that you have learned from it and are going to improve. Remember, owning the mistake is one thing, but repeating it again and again will only compound the original problem. Be specific with your plan of action and the timeframe in which you will correct it. Simply saying, “I won’t do it again” does not inspire confidence.

Here’s an example of a conversation:

Boss: “Client... we look bad...we can’t have this screwing up anymore, do you understand?”

You: “Yes Boss, I understand, I dropped the ball on replying to that client in time, and now they’re angry. Directly after this conversation I will call them, apologize and take responsibility, and do what it takes to make them a happy customer again. Going forward I will make sure I respond to all client emails within 24 hours.”

Step Five: Show that You Took Action

You want to reassure the people that are unhappy with you that you are working to correct the situation. This could mean BCC'ing your boss on some emails that show you’re taking action, or perhaps scheduling a 10 min conversation a week from the incident to show your manager that you’ve corrected the mistakes and the results are positive.

You may not like having to do this and feel it’s demeaning, but remember, we are here because of something you did (or didn’t do). It means a lot if you go a long way to show your boss you are working to improve. Most likely, they will soon tell you they don’t need to be CC’ed anymore.

The point is to show that you weren’t giving your boss lip service when you said you would fix something. You’re following through on your promise to improve, and building your team’s confidence in you.

The Result

As I mentioned at the beginning, everyone screws up. It’s what you do next that shapes how people think about you. Taking accountability and correcting action shows maturity and professionalism. You’ve actually just faced a big test, and have built a lot of trust with your team or manager. Now you’ve gone from a person who screws up to a person who creates solutions. Isn’t that a better way to be viewed?


Hey, did you know LaunchSource is developing a platform to help teach young employees skills like this? Basic stuff like listening better and time management that lead them to become better overall employees! (Even some more in-depth stuff like the fundamentals of business development!)

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