March 26, 2013 6:02 AM   Subscribe

How frequently do you screw up at work? I'm wondering if it's "normal" to screw up at work with the frequency that I am, and I should cut myself some slack. Alternately, I'm considering the possibility that it's a big problem.

Without giving away too much information about myself, let's just say that in the past couple of months I seem to be unable to turn around at work without messing up. Either it's forgetting some minor detail that ends up being crucial to getting a job done, thus resulting in one or more people having to scramble when the detail is discovered; or it's proceeding with a project without thinking through all aspects of it, meaning that the ball gets dropped somewhere along the way.

I would say that since the beginning of the year I've made six pretty blatant mistakes, ranging from minor to slightly catastrophic. I call the one catastrophic because it made a client angry enough at me that I actually started crying in front of him. Ugh, ugh, ugh. The problem ended up being reversible, but I felt like quitting right then.

In my defense, the job is pretty hectic, with lots of unavoidable distractions and minutiae of the sort that I'm not good at managing. I'm a mid-life professional who has been like this my whole life and am actually at the highest level of functioning ever. I am not happy in my job and am actively looking for another. When I mess up like this, though, it's not a great confidence booster, especially given that most people's jobs these days are hectic.

I realize that asking people to freely admit their own work mistakes on the internet may be a bit much, but if there is any perspective on this I'd enjoy hearing it.
posted by silly me to Work & Money (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I am not happy in my job and am actively looking for another.

This is why you're messing up at work with the frequency that you are. If you're unhappy, you're not going to be paying enough attention, nor are you going to care enough to check up on yourself.
posted by xingcat at 6:10 AM on March 26, 2013 [8 favorites]

Any environment that does not allow for the humanity of people (i.e. making the occasional error, and being able to learn and adjust rather than shame and discipline) is toxic and should be avoided.

You are not a cog.
posted by softlord at 6:41 AM on March 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

Stupid as it sounds, a checklist is a fantastic tool that prevents all of those little things that could fall through the cracks from, well, falling through the cracks. Also cuts down on the stress of constantly thinking that you've forgotten something.
posted by dr_dank at 6:41 AM on March 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

My approach at work (and one of my greatest strengths) is to notice when I or others around me make a mistake, and then fins a way to reconfigure my workflow to make it impossible (or nearly so) to make that mistake again. Checklists, automatic reminders, someone to bounce completed tasks off of, artificially early deadlines, underpromise/overdeliver, whatever it may be in your field/job. If you make a mistake, figure out a way to change things to make that mistake impossible. This may require the buy-in of supervisors and co-workers, but if you frame it as "I'm trying to make sure we never make this mistake again," people are usually willing to go along with it.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:49 AM on March 26, 2013 [17 favorites]

It sounds a little like you need a mentor. Is there someone at work you can check in with? Your boss is the logical choice, but if you're not comfortable talking about this with them, then maybe someone more senior or experienced whose opinion you trust, or a very organized-seeming peer. They would have a better sense for how often you make mistakes, what is normal for your organization, and the pressures you're under.

You could just say that you would like to reduce the number of mistakes you make, and give some examples, then ask if they have any suggestions. Ask what techniques they use to make things don't slip through the cracks in project planning. How do they manage distractions? Can they recommend a book on project planning / organization that was helpful for them?

They may react by saying, "Oh, goodness, silly me, you're the most on-the-ball person in the office!" Or maybe they'll agree that you have some work to do, and can help you identify the areas where you can most improve.

Even though you're looking for a new job, you can look at your remaining time in this company as a chance to develop some new skills that will be valuable at a new job. (Though if you're in survival mode right now, and feel unable to sink more energy into your current workplace that is also totally understandable!)
posted by BrashTech at 6:54 AM on March 26, 2013

For what it's worth, I used to be terribly self-conscious about all of my screw-ups at work. Then I took on a QA role, and figured out pretty quickly that my level and frequency of mistakes were totally normal.

In my experience, people tend to make mistakes more often when there's too much to do, when there's little or no QA process or checking others' work, or when they're unhappy or unmotivated to do well. It sounds like at least two and probably all three of those conditions are present in your current environment.

Keep looking for a new job. In the meantime, forgive yourself, and slow down and eliminate distractions whenever you can, even if it means pushing back on requests and not answering "quick questions" as soon as they pop up. Few of these things are actually that urgent.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:00 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

How frequently do you screw up at work? I'm wondering if it's "normal" to screw up at work with the frequency that I am, and I should cut myself some slack.

All of this totally depends on the job. If you work in food service or retail, there are mistakes going on all the time, with everyone. If someone's counting them, it may be a sign that you need to get a new job or shouldn't be in that kind of job. If you're a lawyer or a pharmacist, a mistake is a big thing. You suggest that your job is somewhere in the middle; that there is a certain amount of inherent chaos.

In my defense, the job is pretty hectic, with lots of unavoidable distractions and minutiae of the sort that I'm not good at managing.

How many of these lapses result in customer/client dissatisfaction? Or in higher-ups telling you there is a problem, or in co-workers being seriously inconvenienced? It may be that everyone at your workplace makes errors, and that it's just built into the process, and you are making more because you are so hung up on it. If you have a number like six in your head, clearly you are making a lot out of it even if it's not a problem to other people.

Is it possible that you are depressed?
posted by BibiRose at 7:10 AM on March 26, 2013

It sounds like you are in such a vicious circle at this point - you're unhappy with your job so mistakes creep in, which makes you feel bad, which make you unhappier with your job, etc etc etc.

Honestly, if I were your coworker and my job was affected by your errors I would probably be a little frustrated, and would hope that you were working to address the situation. But I'll tell you, my worst work performance ever occurred in a job I was increasingly unhappy with, not because the job itself was especially bad but because it felt so meaningless - I used to describe it as one of those corporate jobs that seem to exist solely to give people something to do/get paid for - sort of middle class welfare. The best thing that ever happened in my career was losing that job when the company went under and everyone got laid off! It made me realize how much perspective I'd lost, how bound up I'd gotten in all these stupid, petty little day-to-day battles, how much of my own identity I'd allowed to become sucked into a job that I thought was pointless.

Losing that job let me separate my self from my career in ways that I hadn't before, and that was SO healthy in so many ways. Even though I'm currently back in that line of work for the moment, my outlook is so different: I now know I CAN (and probably will) do something different when I'm ready, and that in the meantime, my job is not who I am - it's a way of securing funding to pay for the things that matter to me.

So I guess my point is that while you may be making more mistakes than is really ideal (and of course do take steps to address that; others have already provided good advice upthread), please don't beat yourself up over it. You're not making these mistakes because you suck, but because, as xingcat said, you're not happy in your work. Keep looking for a new job (perhaps in a completely different field?), but in the meantime, do everything you can to leave your work at work, and remember you are not your job, and that your work mistakes do not define you.

Feel free to drop me a note if you need a sympathetic ear, and good luck in your job search.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:12 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I make mistakes pretty often. I also have self-checks built in to my daily activities, so I catch most of them before they affect others. Those self-checking mechanisms were built over years, in reaction to either major fuck-ups ; or less major ones that my boss brought to my attention more than once.

If you are planning on leaving, I don't know how much time/effort I'd put into this. Maybe start with simple checklists, slow down, calm down, and focus, and see what that does.
posted by Fig at 7:43 AM on March 26, 2013

You will probably make less mistakes when engaged in work that you love and enjoy, or at least work that is most suited for you. If doing that type of work is not a possibility, then using to-do lists and getting some kind of organization skills training may help.
posted by Dansaman at 7:48 AM on March 26, 2013

In terms of your volume of mistakes, I'd say I've seen better and I've seen worse. How well tolerated these mistakes are will depend on your job environment, visibility, and the severity of the impact (mistakes that cost you a client or a large sum of money are rarely well tolerated). That said, if you want to be a high performer, improving your error rate is essential. Right now you are likely not perceived as such, but you can turn it around at any moment.

I also work in a fast-paced job full of constant interruptions. Most days I feel like my hair is on fire. I used to make a lot of mistakes on little details as well, and what I found helped me was identifying the most critical moments in projects and ensuring I did those pieces flawlessly and stressing a little less on the other stuff. Send an email with a typo? Attach the wrong file? Whatever. Didn't get that basically unnecessary process document done on time? Meh. In my case, if my stuff goes live correctly and looks great, that's what I'm really there to do, so where I do spend a lot of time is double-checking assets I send to the operations team for final scheduling, writing bulletproof build notes and crafting careful, well-worded emails to clients. If people get confused along the way internally or we have to backtrack a little, it's fixable, but if something is out there in the world on launch day and it's wrong, it's a disaster, so I don't let that happen. Figure out what part of your job is the most valuable and essential and focus your energy on doing that piece really well, and let the little things be imperfect. For me, this approached changed my whole career.

The upside to all of this is, once you get this under control, your anxiety level will go down tremendously. It's very time consuming to constantly wonder if you dropped the ball. Buttoning it up will allow you to let that go and feel confident that you aren't about to be called into your bosses office to explain yourself. No matter how much you like or hate your job, that scenario blows, so finding ways to not make it happen will improve your experience even in a job you aren't fond of.

Good luck!
posted by amycup at 7:50 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

In my defense, the job is pretty hectic, with lots of unavoidable distractions and minutiae of the sort that I'm not good at managing.

Hmm. How many co-workers' mistakes have you had to help cover for?

It could just be the office is short-handed and management is trying to squeeze too much out of too few. If you and your officemates are constantly jumping at work, but they're not adding staff, that's a problem. A "hectic pace" causes mistakes - people need time and concentration to do a good job.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:10 AM on March 26, 2013

I had an opportunity to go back to my old job after a 10 year absence (early retirement.)
Things had changed quite a bit but I really tried hard to "get" the new ways - writing extensive lists, skipping breaks, taking short lunches - all to devote myself completely to learning the "new" old job.
The net effect was just the opposite of what I wanted as, instead of doing a bang up job, I kept screwing up over and over.

I was trying so hard to prove worthy of this honor of being invited back that I constantly did dumb stuff like forgetting to write down passwords ( the place has gone security nuts) - taking too long to do things, etc. that, unbelievably, in less than a week I was written up by my supervisor and the manager was informed my work was sub-par.
I was so humiliated I just quit on the spot.

Lesson learned: Try to slow down and relax rather than over focusing yourself into an anxious state.
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 8:32 AM on March 26, 2013

If they like you, they let you make mistakes all day.
If they don't, one mistake a month is too many.
posted by whatdidyouforgettoday at 1:16 PM on March 26, 2013

Response by poster: I'm willing to consider a large part of this may be disenchantment with my current job. That gives me hope.

Thank you for all of your thoughts and suggestions.
posted by silly me at 2:06 PM on March 26, 2013

I am a writer for a non-profit, and one of my jobs is sending out emails to up to 15,000 people. This year is only three months in, and I've already made these two mistakes in emails:

1) Listed a deadline as February 29, after copying text from last year. There is no February 29 in 2013.

2) Given instructions on how to update account information that was copied from another department. Unfortunately, the instructions were wrong so the main website had to be changed to make it match the instructions. I should have caught the discrepancy.

I felt like an idiot both times, but my boss said "If you aren't making mistakes, you probably aren't doing much" and let me learn from them. I definitely *won't* make either of those mistakes again.

So tl;dr - I screw up. It's embarrassing. But I assume it is normal.
posted by tacodave at 3:49 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I screw up at least as frequently as you, but the nature of my job means that no one ever really notices. I have colleagues who make mistakes that affect others about that frequently and they are often referred to with rolling of eyes, but their non-mistake work is good enough that people don't really make a big deal about the errors.

So yeah, I don't think your behaviour is likely to be the problem. I think it's the way your behaviour intersects with workplaces expectations and environment.
posted by lollusc at 4:42 PM on March 26, 2013

One hard truth I've had to admit about myself is that I have a number of adequate soft skills in life, which really helps me in my profession. My attention to detail, though, is not always as consistent. I've learned some tricks and acquired some tools to help in this regard, but it can be tiring and take a lot of energy for me. If I am in a project that requires a lot of attention to detail over a long period of time, I'm prone to make mistakes. Your story resonates with me. I have to double- and triple-check everything, and it's tiring. If the environment is fast-paced, it doesn't always allow for this level of redundancy.

This has lead me to a profession in which I am exceedingly lucky to have an administrative assistant who can help pick up the slack a bit. We make a good team, but it's one in which my deficiencies can be compensated for without there being work consequences. I have not always been so lucky, and in my previous job, I found it more exhausting to attend to things I wasn't naturally good at. This lead often to procrastination, as I knew I was prone to mistakes, and being something of a perfectionist, I dreaded letting people down. I am not, and perhaps will never be, someone who thrives in the details like others I know and respect.

I'm not sure what this says about your situation, though, except that I don't think it's odd that this kind of thing might happen. It might say whether you might be better cut out for something that makes a different use of your unique skillset (suggested by the fact that you say you aren't happy at your job), but that would be your call, of course. Not every job requires a high attention to project-essential details.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:27 AM on March 27, 2013

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