Need a "Do-over at Work? How to Recover from Stupid Mistakes

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Aug 16, 2023

By Judy Carter

We all mess up sometimes—a presentation falls flat, you lose your temper with a co-worker, you step on the gas instead of the brake and smash into someone's house. Well, OK, some mistakes are bigger than others. Whether you are a salesperson who lost a big account or an employee who just told off the boss, don't start combing through the want ads just yet. If you play your cards right, you could get a second chance using something as simple of your sense of humor. Laughter breaks tension, changes the mood and creates an opening for what kids call a “do-over.”

Here are some simple techniques that will help you get a do-over at work:

1.  Admit the mistake immediately
If your mistake is obvious, don’t try to pretend it didn't happen. Don’t diminish its importance, defend it or make excuses for it. Simply admit the error and ask for the chance to rectify it. If you have already made a mistake, don't make another one by lying. Lying about what you did will probably get you in more hot water than the mistake itself. A good boss knows that everyone makes mistakes, but it takes a truly trustworthy employee to fess up.

2. Exaggerate your mistake
What? Shouldn't I make my mistake smaller? No! Taking an exaggerated view of your mistake will very often prompt the boss to put it into a more realistic perspective: "Well, what you did wasn't that bad. If you just do this…" She or he may even tell you how to do your do-over.

For instance, if your mistake cost your boss a few hundred dollars, try saying, "What a huge mistake I made. I'm worse than Michael Jackson's plastic surgeon. This is not good. You shouldn't have people like me working for you." Just don't go overboard looking for a laugh. And show that you are sincerely sorry for your error.

3. Launch a preemptive strike
When you know your boss is going to find out about your mistake, figure out a solution (which is your do-over) and then march in and say, "Boy I really messed up. But the good news is that I figured out how to fix it."

Then tell the boss what your do-over is. Catching your mistake before the boss finds out shows that you’re on top of things and avoids giving your boss too much time to dwell on your error.

4. Keep a sense of humor about yourself
This is where the power of humor can help you with a do-over. Here is a situation that happened to me. A prospective corporate client, Chubb Insurance, asked me to write up a proposal of how my corporate comedy training would work for their company. I erroneously thought they were a weight loss company and wrote my proposal accordingly. They said, "I can see by your proposal that you are a complete idiot." Well, they weren't exactly that harsh, but they said something to that effect. So, rather then defend myself or make excuses, I used a comedy technique—validate and exaggerate. It went something like this: "You are so right about that. And you are so smart, you figured out I was an idiot in three minutes. It usually takes people three months to figure that out about me."

The manager laughed and that broke the tension. It also gave me some time to figure out how I was going to fix my mistake. I said, "Now that my Internet connection is back up, let me do some research about your company and I'm sure I can rise from idiot to mildly stupid." Not only did I end up getting the job, but they referred me to other divisions of the corporation.

Believe it: Keeping your sense of humor will help you keep your job. I’m living proof of that.

About the Author(s)

Judy Carter is a motivational humorist who works with corporations to develop ways to use comedy in the workplace.  She is the author of The Comedy Bible and her latest book The Anti-Self Help Bible: Finding Happiness When You're Fat, Broke and Surrounded by Idiots.  For more information, visit