3 Phrases That'll Calm Down an Angry Boss After You Make a Big Mistake

The first time I made a major mistake at work I thought my career was over. I’d joined the team six months prior and was beginning to feel like I was finally getting the hang of my responsibilities—until I realized I’d reported inaccurate figures to one of our major clients.

The kicker? They made business decisions based on this faulty information, and my boss had the painful task of explaining this to our client.

He was livid, and I was mortified. Embarrassed for making such a careless error, I was unsure of what to do next. Should I pack my things and go home? Should I avoid my manager and act like nothing happened?

I decided to face the music and set up some time to talk about what had happened.

Was the conversation awkward? Yes. But was it a necessary part of the process? Absolutely.

If you spend enough time working, you’ll likely make a mistake (or two) that you’ll need to bounce back from. And even though everyone (including your supervisor) knows that this is an unavoidable part of work, it doesn’t mean tensions won’t run high in the heat of the moment.

Here are three phrases you should keep in your back pocket the next time you need to calm down your boss after you mess up.

1. “I’m Sorry I [Insert Mistake].”

Apologizing should be a no-brainer, but it’s very often overlooked. The first thing I did when I sat down with my manager was cut to the chase. I wanted him to know that I took full responsibility for my actions, so I was direct: “I’m sorry I sent the wrong figures to our client.”

Once you’ve committed an oversight, avoid passing the blame to someone or something else. This will only further aggravate the situation (and your boss) and make it harder for you both to move forward. Being accountable when you mess up is the first step in diffusing the situation.

2. “I Understand Why This Happened.”

One of the key things I did during my conversation was explain that I’d been using my own files to run calculations and not the designated shared team files that could’ve prevented this mishap. I’d uncovered the underlying reason which instantly calmed him down and allowed us to focus on what needed to happen going forward—instead of on my actual mistake.

When you’re trying to move past an error, it’s not enough to only focus on fixing the issue. You’ve got to also make it clear to your supervisor (and yourself) that you’ve figured out the root cause of the problem and you understand why it happened. This is an important step in the process and it can go a long way in helping to calm down the angry party.

3. “What I’ve Learned From My Mistake Is [Insert What You’ve Learned].”

The only thing worse than actually making a noticeable blunder is not learning anything from it. You’ve got to go beyond saying “It’ll never happen again” and instead make it crystal clear what your key takeaways are. What will you do differently next time? What new processes and systems can be implemented? How can you and your team be better? Turning this into a strategic opportunity is something your boss can’t stay mad at.

Turns out I wasn’t the only person on the team not using the shared team files to run reports—accessing them was clunky and inconvenient. As a direct result of my faux pas, I worked with a few team members to streamline our entire process and created a semi-automated reporting solution that dramatically decreased the amount of errors our team made. As you can imagine, my boss was thrilled.

Once you’ve accepted responsibility for your actions and acknowledged the impact your oversight has made, explained (in a non-defensive way) why it happened and clearly outlined what you’ll do to avoid it ever happening again, there isn’t much else left for you to do.

Of course, during this process, you do want to be careful about going overboard in your handling of the situation. Muse writer Ashley Colbert offers this “just right” approach that you’ll want to be aware of as you go into this conversation.

What you’ll find is that even though your manager isn’t happy with the fact that you screwed up, he’ll appreciate your professionalism in handling it and will be just as ready to move on as you are. Making mistakes at work and in life is inevitable. It’s less about making a commitment to be perfect and more about what you do to recover.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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