How a Screw-Up Can Be More Valuable Than a Raise

So you screwed up at work. Maybe your boss is mad at you. Maybe this will even affect your chances of ever getting ahead where you are. Is your only hope to buy lottery tickets with your life savings and then pray that you win?

Although this is neither a financial advice blog nor a religious blog, I’ll answer the lottery question for you: NO! (Of course, one ticket probably won’t hurt.)

But screw-ups happen. To all of us. The real trick is how you handle them.

When I graduated from grad school, I interviewed with several major financial institutions. A senior vice president at Citibank asked me “Have you ever failed at anything?” Being young and naive, I smiled, said “no” and left it at that. In retrospect, it would have been the perfect opportunity to bring up something that went wrong and show how I persevered and triumphed. (That’s great stuff for interviews.) The SVP looked me in the eye and said with an almost fatherly tone “That’s a real shame. The most successful people I know have one thing in common: they’ve all failed at something. It makes you stronger.”

I’ve never forgotten that. And he’s right. A lot of the most important lessons I’ve learned at work (or elsewhere) have come from things that went wrong – for me or others.

Now I’m not advising you to run right out and screw up big time just to become successful. It doesn’t quite work that way. But if you make your best efforts – and that sometimes includes taking risks – and you wind up failing, your job is to figure out where to go from there with as much dignity as possible.

First and foremost, try not to get stuck in the whiny place. They don’t understand me. Everyone is against me. I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s all their fault. The job was too hard. (I’m sure you can add your own phrases here.) Nor will it help to self-flagellate. I’m so stupid! I can’t ever do anything right. All this is useless chatter.

Even if any or all of that is true, it’s not going to do you any good to sit and regret what didn’t happen. Your best bet is to dust yourself off and come up with an action plan that starts with an honest appraisal of what did happen and any role YOU played in the event. This is not about self blame; it’s about understanding and using that knowledge to work smarter the next time.

In my last post, I talked about Leana who was promised a raise that is now in jeopardy because she received a warning for something she did. She’s angry at her boss since she feels this isn’t fair. We can all understand how upsetting that is. But at this point, she has no control over whether they actually give her the raise. All she can control is how she reacts.

It will help Leana now and in the rest of her career to take the high road. She needs to step back and try to honestly see any role she played in this organizational dynamic. This is not only about the mistake she made that got her a warning, but maybe even something as simple as not documenting what was promised her. Or maybe she pissed off a close friend of the boss. Or maybe she just doesn’t really see how she’s relating to others on the job.

There are so many possibilities a person – especially someone fresh to the business world – might not see at first. But when these things happen, it’s our cue to start paying attention and maybe start looking at things from a different perspective – such as how others see us.

So what can we do after we screw up? Here are some basic steps that might be helpful:

  • Assess what happened.
  • Take responsibility for what was in your control (even if others helped it fail.)
  • Correct as much as possible. (Include any other original participants in the corrective action where possible.)
  • Make sure you apologize to your boss. Let your boss know you take responsibility and how you are fixing the problem. Also look your boss in the eye and let your boss know you will work harder and smarter from now on to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
  • Work harder and smarter and try your best to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
  • Whether you wind up staying where you are or moving on, make sure you add these hard-learned lessons to the way you operate from now on.
  • Let the past go. Stay in the present and plan for the future without feeling the pressing weight of past screw ups. (Although remembering the lessons is key.)

If you stay positive and focused, overcoming a screw-up can only add to your value as an employee. Things like what happened to Leana may at first glance seem like bad news, but in the long run (if you play it right) can offer up career smarts that will prove more valuable than any raise.

The trick is using the past to learn, letting go of any anger or bad feelings, and then moving on. Success doesn’t have time for baggage.

But – if handled right – screw-ups can actually help make you stronger and smarter in the long run. Just seven more words of advice: try not to do it too often.


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. This post prompted me to get nostalgic. During my professional past, I had an unpaid internship. At the end of those three months, my supervisor surprised me and paid me $1000. She also offered me the chance to work for her another 3 months. I accepted her offer. Yet, at the end of the 2nd three months, she left the office on stress leave. I wrote her a get well card and also asked her if she was planning to pay me another $1000. That effort got led to my being asked to officially leave the premises by higher authority. I wasn’t paid anything and I was told I would not be welcomed back. Harsh!? I wasn’t given the opportunity to apologize and you can imagine I though it better not to send another letter. Luckily, I was working another paid internship simultaneously to pay my bills. The negative experience taught me that I needed to value myself more and learn that some situations may seem harmless to me but very disturbing to other people. I reminded myself that my point of view isn’t the only way of seeing things. I learned to let go of my confusion, desire for control and naivete, and move on.

  2. What a wonderful comment, liarac! And what a shock that must have been at the time. But instead of letting what happened stop you, you figured out how to mine for gold and make the experience about what to do next – and not “they done me wrong.” Not easy to do, but sure worth it. Thanks for sharing that invaluable lesson with us. It reminds us that it’s not so much what happens, but how we handle things.

  3. The problem with most people is either they have never encounter any major screw-ups (like myself), or they’ve encountered before….just that they didn’t want to admit.

    I guess the important thing is to admit the mistake, learn from it and continue from there. I’m sure you’ll gain more by learning from it, than letting your ego controls you and not admitting the mistake.

  4. If a person really puts himself out there and takes risks in the business world, odds are they will eventually screw up in one way or another. And they have to know that it’s ok and give themselves permission to fail if it happens. Not that you aim for that, of course!

    And it doesn’t have to be a big screw-up – you can learn even from those small mistakes or missteps we all make on a regular basis. Sometimes rather than the person not admitting it (although that’s common), it’s about being tuned in enough to even recognize it. It may even take some distance to realize how we could have handled something differently and gained by it.

  5. This is great. Thanks for the post. All this goes for bosses to. Sometimes it’s good to see a boss apologize for something that went wrong, but I think we’re still dealing with those trained in an age of macho-leadership where you will appear weak if you apologize.

  6. You’re so right Natalie. Employees wouldn’t have to twist their brains in a million directions if there weren’t so many underlying restrictions and taboos and downright misconceptions that influence boss and co-worker behavior. While one of my most important messages is to stop expecting others to change and get on with the changes you yourself can make, well…wouldn’t it be great to work with people who just think about the work, do their fair share, and actually treat each other with respect? Sigh. How refreshing that would be. And I know some really nice bosses who dream of that day too!

  7. This is a great post, full of excellent advice [I especially like the final seven words!]. Let me add something I’ve learned. It’s not always applicable, but when it is, it helps. If the screw-up is early enough in the process that no one in power has noticed it, quickly figure out a solution—the best one, if possible, but a workable one in any case. Then go to your boss and alert him/her to the screw-up, apologize for your role in it and say, “Here’s how I think we can fix it.” By owning up BEFORE the mistake is widely known, you prove yourself to be honest and demonstrate that the company’s well-being comes first, even over your own reputation. And by having an immediate solution, you show you don’t cave under pressure and can be counted on in a crisis. Who knows, you may get that raise anyway.

  8. Great advice Terry! You are absolutely right. Fess up, apologize, and come armed with possible solutions as soon as possible.

  9. Terry is right. It’s better to admit a mistake early on, propose a solution to your boss and have the mistake fixed……….than to have the boss realized the mistake when it’s too late. It won’t benefit anyone if it’s too late.

  10. You’re right. I agree with both you and Terry, Alvin. Catching it early is the ideal way. Unfortunately, sometimes people don’t realize their mistakes until it’s already too late. But the course of action is still the same…fess up, take corrective action, and do your best not to repeat the same mistake!

  11. Thanks for posting this info. It makes me feel better. I just found this because I had a huge screw-up at work, a new product launch was delayed several weeks (had never happened before) because of this mistake. It helped that I was traveling at the time and that gave me lots of time to think about it in isolation. In the end, I assumed responsibility even though there were other people who contributed to it. I honestly apologized and kept my chin up. One thing that helps is, do realize and do accept that your boss is angry. That won’t change. Don’t fight that. Don’t get angry at him/her. Let him/her vent.

  12. Thanks for the great comment, Phil. Good for readers to hear from others who go through the same kinds of things they do. Sounds like you handled it really well – and are aware of the accompanying workplace ripples. I hope you have the kind of boss who can see the bigger picture after the smoke clears.

    Good luck with the product launch in its new time slot. And…watch for any things that serendipity provides that for some reason make this an even better time for the launch. I’ve managed many projects and every now and then you can show how things turned out even better (by accident or of your own making) because of the screw up. 🙂

  13. NOTE TO READERS: I have removed a comment, something I rarely do.

    This site welcomes respectful discussion. But comments, like the one I removed, that are abusive or curse out the other commenters (or me) are not welcome.

    And just to further explain the main point of this article…it is not about giving in to the corporate world or being a door mat. It’s about identifying what we can and can’t change, and then working on things that will help us in the end. Once you screw up, it’s a done deal. You can either wallow in it and blame others, or you can figure out what to do within the company that is to your best advantage and what to take with you for the rest of your career. If you need to move on, at least you know you’ve done all you can and left with a chance to get decent references. We all screw up. It’s best to fess up and let it go. Otherwise, you are just hurting yourself.

  14. Gummyshark says:

    I screwed up at work today, massively, I Told my boss what had happened the minute I realized and he was fine with it, he told me the best way to go about the situation and I followed his instructions to the letter. Only to then have the legal consulant verbally abuse the crap out of me. I had a panic attack. After she accused me of covering up my mistake and blaming others, I respectfully told her that I hadnt blamed anyone and I had told my supervisor as soon as I realized what had happened, she then told me I had no attention to detail (despite he fact I’m currently doing the work of three people across three different roles).. I have been beating myself up over this. I know what this woman is like; she has a history of Painting people in very harsh light. And even though I handled this with as much dignity as I could I know I’m going to be made to look like a complete incompetent moron. I don’t know how to defend myself without coming off as a liar, the worst thing is I shouldn’t have to defend myself when I have gracefully accepted resonsibility for my mistake.

    • chandlee says:

      Hi Gummyshark,

      Sounds like you’ve had a very bad day at work. As I don’t work at your organization and don’t know the office politics, all I can do is say that I’m glad you’ve stopped by Work Coach Cafe and shared the situation. I must imagine you wake up feeling a bit awkward.

      My short answer to your dilemma would be to stay the course — let your boss know that you followed up exactly as per his directions and that you’ve let the legal consultant know what happened. (I would imagine that she will follow up directly with him as she sees fit.)

      As for proceeding forward, here’s my advice on how to handle the situation without getting emotional — when you talk about what happened, only state what could be observed with the eye. Don’t use any adjectives — and just say what could be seen (in an email or by observers). Example, instead of saying someone looked like they were on the verge of a heart attack, you might say. “His face was red. He said he was having trouble breathing. He was clutching his chest.”

      Or instead of saying someone didn’t do something. “I asked _______ to do this at _____ on ____ date and send me an e-mail when it was done. At _____ time, I have not received an email.”

      Good luck — and don’t feel that you’ve been an incompetent moron. We all make mistakes. What’s graceful is when you can own up to them and proceed — and it sounds like you’ve really done that.


  15. Thankyou for this great post. I screwed up massively today in my new job (two weeks in) and may have cost my employer a lot of money in ad revenue. I admitted my mistake to the boss, who blew off a lot of steam then calmed down. In the end he was very fair (when I’d apologised A LOT) and we talked about moving on. This stuff up came about from a number of reasons (the biggest being my poor judgement) but also some confusion about their advertiser relationships, them being too busy and me being reluctant to ask qus and clarify because of this. After my discussion with the boss I felt that if I worked hard enough I could hopefully salvage my position.
    Now his wife (who runs accounts) is sending me very angry emails, all the stuff he blew off steam about but with none of the fairness. I basically feel like I’m now going to lose this job that I just started. I’ll follow the advice in this blog but basically feel like complete crap again. I think I should call her to apologise in person (all our workplace is remote) but am worried about her reaction. Thanks again for this post.

    • Hi Rebecca,

      I recommend calling her directly to apologize. It may be scary but it’s often much harder for people to be negative face-to-face. Apologize and then ask her what you can do moving forward. Ask her what the best way for you to ask questions and communicate with her is. Good luck!

      If you do move on, I think you can safely apply for jobs and leave this one off your resume…Two weeks is a short time.

      All the Best,

  16. I screwed up after a year on the job. Fortunately my position is one that is not easily filled. I do mechanical design with solidworks engineering software. Anyways, other than being stronger and smarter from trying to avoid screwing up again. Another benefit of screwing up, I have found is that the boss realizes that there is a limit to how much work he can pile on me before I start cracking under the pressure. The work load is more evenly distributed, and coworkers that I find sleeping at their desks are now given the task of tackling my less difficult assignments.

  17. I screwed up at work yesterday. The story began 2 months ago when my supervisor asked a coworker (she is supposed to be my 2nd mentor) to teach me to do her work. For some reasons she doesn’t want to teach me anything. She said she doesn’t know how to teach me, so every morning she gives me lots of mail to do. Bascially most of my work time is doing the mail rather than learning how to do her work. I wanted to learn something new (I already knew how to do mail 5 months ago) and I know some coworkers are also doing part of her work. I decided to follow other coworkers instead and learn to do her work.

    Yesterday only a few workers in the office and they were all busy so I did the work myself and screwed it up. I told my “so-called” 2nd mentor I needed to apologize to my supervisor and she started teaching me what to say to the supervisor. She asked me to tell her what she has taught me. I feel it was so weird. At the end I apologized to my supervisor and she was okay with that. Amazingly I did protect my coworker for peace sake even she taught me nothing. I don’t know how to move on especially I still need to work with this coworker and she doesn’t want to teach me anything.

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