How To Tell Your Co-Worker That They Made A Mistake At Work

You can address a colleague's mistake without making it combative or awkward.
Mistakes happen to everyone. But what separates good colleagues from great ones are the ones willing to offer guidance after you make an error.
Kanok Sulaiman via Getty Images
Mistakes happen to everyone. But what separates good colleagues from great ones are the ones willing to offer guidance after you make an error.

It’s inevitable that, at some point, someone you work with will make a big mistake. Do you point it out to them or not?

Sometimes it’s easier to look the other way and avoid an awkward conversation. But you may only be costing your team more work down the line if you keep ignoring someone’s errors. And especially if you’re their manager, you don’t want to save your criticisms for an annual performance review.

“A key difference between a good manager and a great manager is their ability to provide constructive feedback that helps their employees grow and succeed. Is it uncomfortable to call out mistakes? Absolutely! But think about the disservice you’re doing to your team if you don’t help them learn and improve,” said career coach Becca Carnahan. “You’d be stagnating their growth, and no one wants that.“

Ideally, in any situation, you want your co-worker to learn what they did wrong shortly after they make a mistake so that it doesn’t happen again, but you also want to deliver guidance in a way that preserves your relationship with them. Here’s how to do both:

1. Don’t bring up the mistake when you feel angry or frustrated. But don’t avoid the conversation forever.

When your emotions are running high, you are not in the best headspace to talk professionally about the mistake. Take a deep breath.

Put things into perspective so that you can have the discussion in a better mood, said Andres Lares, managing partner at Shapiro Negotiations Institute.

“Remember, we all make mistakes and move forward,” he said. “If it helps, prior to the meeting, do some activities you enjoy, e.g., listening to music or going for a brief walk, to get in a positive frame of mind.”

But you don’t want to delay the conversation too long, either. That will make it more awkward, Carnahan said. “I recommend addressing the mistake as soon as possible after the fact to give the other person the opportunity to handle the error in the moment or to learn quickly for the next time,” she said. “Sitting on the mistake and not addressing it quickly will also only cause you more stress while dreading the conversation. We don’t need that!“

Ideally, pull your colleague aside in private to avoid shaming them in front of their peers, said Gianna Driver, chief human resources officer at the software company Exabeam. “Doing this in private settings is a lot more respectful and effective versus doing this in a group meeting.”

2. Assess how big of a deal the mistake is.

To assess how to respond to your colleague’s mistake, Driver recommends asking yourself: Are these mistakes unintentional or intentional? Are they repeated or is this a one-off situation? What’s the gravity of the mistake?

Unintentional mistakes are part of being human, she said, but if it’s an intentional mistake that caused harm or financial loss to the company or another human being, that may require immediate escalation and looping in human resources.

3. Offer your feedback as a form of help, and offer to be part of the solution.

It can feel isolating and humiliating to make a big mistake. That’s why it helps to tell your co-worker that you have their back.

Driver noted the saying that “a problem shared is a problem halved.” She said that approaching a co-worker’s mistake with kindness not only incentivizes them to do better in the future, but it also sends your colleague the reassuring message that you’re a team.

Being humble and direct is key with these conversations. It’s easy to have someone get defensive when you point out their mistake. To lower your colleague’s guard, don’t be evasive about the topic of conversation. In her book “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” management expert Kim Scott explained that in order to criticize without discouraging someone, it helps to directly state what your intentions for the conversation are, and say that you are open to being wrong.

In her book, Scott suggested starting your conversation with a preamble, such as, “I’m going to describe a problem I see; I may be wrong, and if I am, I hope you’ll tell me; if I’m not, I hope my bringing it up will help you fix it.“

Similarly, Carnahan recommends starting the conversation from a place of curiosity.

“Sometimes what we view as a mistake is simply an alternate way of approaching a problem,” she said. “For example, you might say ‘I noticed that you skipped this part of the project plan. Do you think there is a way that we could be more efficient that we should capture in the plan for next time?’ It’s not passive or combative, it’s direct and curious, which creates a beneficial dialogue.”

4. Be specific about what went wrong, and spell out the effect of the mistake.

Even if you have a laundry list of errors to point out, make your suggestions specific and targeted.

“If you are the feedback recipient and someone is pointing out an error or mistake but you’re not really clear on what went wrong or what the result was, that’s not really useful,” Driver said.

In her book, Scott explained that in order to criticize without discouraging someone, you need to make it clear that the mistake is what is wrong, not the person. “Make it clear that the problem is not due to some unfixable personality flaw. Share stories when you’ve been criticized for something similar,” she recommended.

The Center for Creative Leadership, an executive education company, recommends using the situation-behavior-impact-intent checklist when a co-worker lets you down in some way:

Situation: Describe when the situation occurred.
Behavior: Stick to the facts of what you observed without judgment.
Impact: Share your experience of how their behavior impacted your feelings, whether positively or not. For example, you could say, “I felt frustrated when you interrupted me because it broke my train of thought,” CCL states.
Intent: Ask questions like “What were you hoping to accomplish with that?” or “What was going on for you?” to get to the bottom of the person’s thinking.

5. To truly move forward, you need to go beyond words.

You can say you are willing to let bygones be bygones after you hash out a mistake with a co-worker, but a bigger repeat mistake can cause a rupture of trust.

If you’re a manager, moving on from this kind of mistake may include giving your co-worker opportunities to demonstrate that they are reliable and credible again. “Offer to give the person a few additional small responsibilities to ensure they are reliable and learned their lesson,” Lares said. “Be open to them redeeming themselves through improved work quality and additional responsibilities, if applicable.”

And if you’re a peer rather than their boss, Carnahan said you still shouldn’t be afraid to offer pointers.

“If you truly want your colleagues to succeed, give them the opportunity to do so,” she said. “No one was born knowing how to create a pivot table, draft engaging marketing copy or handle difficult customers. They learn through training, doing and reacting to feedback.”

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