How to rebuild your credibility after messing up at work

A Career Lesson from the CEO of Deloitte Consulting
A Career Lesson from the CEO of Deloitte Consulting

When you really mess up at work, you can harm your reputation and relationships with managers and co-workers. We're not taking about small mistakes here. You're human, and hopefully you have a fairly reasonable manager who understands that. We're talking about major screwups – the ones that affect your manager's trust in you, impact your salary and even make you worry about your job.

When you really step in it, you might feel like you'll never recover. However, you can often rebuild your credibility if you make a concerted effort to repair the damage. Here's how:

1. Acknowledge what happened.When you mess up, talking about it might be the last thing you feel like doing. But how you take responsibility for what happened will be one of the biggest elements in the impression it leaves on people. Immediately admit what happened, and don't make excuses or get defensive. Use words such as, "I really screwed this up" and "I get what a big deal this it." In fact, the more concerned you seem, the less your boss is likely to feel that she needs to impress the severity of the mistake on you.

2. Talk about why it happened. Sometimes people worry that if they address the "why" of a mistake, it will sound like they're making excuses. But this isn't about making excuses; it's about figuring out how you can make sure the mistake doesn't happen again. Was it an isolated incident? Does it point to a larger problem with your systems or approach to the work? Are there safeguards you can put in place so it doesn't happen again? Are there any other changes that will help?

3. Work hard – really hard.If you've been cutting corners, stop. Stay late. Do the extra work. Over time, this will become people's more recent impression of you, not your mistake. Plus, your manager will see that you're working hard and will assume it's an attempt to get past the mistake, which she'll appreciate.

4. Communicate. You might be tempted to just keep your head down and avoid your boss, because you might be nervous about talking with her or getting feedback on your work. That's the worst instinct you can have in this situation.

If your boss does have serious concerns about you, going underground will exacerbate them. Keeping open lines of communication and talking to her about the good work you're doing will help mitigate the concerns that were raised earlier.

5. Think about what worries the mistake may have raised for your boss or others, and find ways to counteract them. For example, if your boss is now worried you're careless or prone to poor judgment when dealing with clients, make a particular point of demonstrating attention to detail and great client judgment.

6. Be willing to accept increased scrutiny for a while (but not forever). It's going to be natural for your manager to pay closer attention to your work for a while. You might have to deal with more intensive questioning than you've had in the past. This is a normal part of the process of moving on from a serious mistake. Rather than seeing it as something annoying, you should see it as something that will help you rebuild trust.

That said, you shouldn't be in the hot seat forever. If you demonstrate reliable, high quality work over a sustained period of time – we're talking months here, not days – and the increased scrutiny never lets up, that might be a sign that it's going to be hard to overcome that mistake with this manager.

7. Don't panic. When you know you've really screwed up, you might naturally panic or obsess about how you're now seen. But to the extent you can, it's important to put this behind you mentally, because dwelling on it will often keep you in a tense mental space where you're more likely to mess up again – the opposite of what you want. Try not to obsess over the mistake too much, and remember that most people who make mistakes at work – even big ones – aren't fired for them.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.

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