When publicist Jennifer B.* was just starting out in her career, her job was so demanding that she tried to take a few shortcuts.
“I was pitching all the major beauty and fashion publications, and I cut-and-pasted the same pitch into about 50-plus e-mails,” she recalls. “I ended up addressing two top editors with the wrong names, so it was clear I was ‘mass’ pitching. It made me look incompetent and lazy. Huge mistake.”
Whether you’re just starting out in your career or you’ve been working for decades, everyone messes up now and then.
Sure, it’s mortifying.
But making some missteps and mistakes early on in your career is actually a critical part of growing — both professionally and personally.
That’s why we rounded up career pros to offer their insights on the workplace faux pas that have the potential to actually make you a better employee.
Mistake No. 1: You Botch a Big Project
You and your team have worked for months to finish an important initiative at work — only to discover that you made a big error and the project is way over budget.
So instead of feeling triumphant about doing a great job, you’re now worried about getting fired.
What You Can Learn From It: “How you react can really make a difference in terms of how people view you from that point on,” says Cheryl Palmer, a certified career coach at executive coaching firm Call to Career.
Her advice? Go into damage control right away — and be sure to come clean with your boss and your team.
“People respect it when you say you made a mistake,” says Jessica Bacal, director of Smith College’s Wurtele Center for Work & Life and author of “Mistakes I Made At Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect On What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong.” “So have the conversation with your boss and own up to it — without being overly apologetic. You can say, ‘This is a good lesson. And here’s how I’m going to address it in the future.’ ”
Mistake No. 2: You Do Something to Get Demoted
There was a time when you were your supervisor’s go-to person, but lately you’ve noticed that you aren’t being asked to certain meetings — and other staffers are getting assignments that should be yours.
You’ve been unofficially demoted.
Aside from it being a hard-to-stomach blow to your ego, it can make you wonder if your job has hit a plateau — or worse, is on a downward spiral.
What You Can Learn From It: This can be an opportune moment to take a step back and do an honest assessment of how you’ve been doing at work.
Is it possible you’ve been dropping the ball lately, and that’s why your supervisor is giving you fewer responsibilities? Are you feeling so overwhelmed that it’s affecting your productivity and the quality of your work?
Whatever the case, it can be helpful to your future career if you learn how to identify when things are derailing — and immediately take action to get your job back on track.
Another wise move? Consider having a frank conversation with your boss about your concerns and ask for constructive feedback, suggests Bacal.
Bottom line: You won’t be able to turn things around if you aren’t clear on what exactly the problem is.
So if you think you’re in hot water because you’ve taken on too much, says Bacal, you can work with your supervisor to help you figure out which important tasks you should tackle first.
“You can say to your boss, ‘I really want to make sure I’m prioritizing correctly. Right now I’m working to get X done, and this additional assignment would push things back slightly,’ ” suggests Bacal.
With this nuanced tact, you’re not only managing expectations that your boss may have but also hopefully getting the guidance you need.
“It’s better to communicate and speak in an enthusiastic way about your career values and goals,” she says, “than to under-communicate and watch things get taken away at work.”
Mistake No. 3: You Pretend to Know What You’re Doing
When you’re starting a new job — or taking on a new role at your current gig — it’s natural to have a case of “impostor syndrome.”
Translation: You feel like you don’t quite know what you’re doing, but you don’t speak up about any concerns you may have out of fear.
Well, it turns out that this predicament isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What You Can Learn From It: For starters, know that everyone feels like they are faking it at work at times.
“Whenever you’re making a change and learning new skills, especially if you’re in a leadership role, you’re going to feel like an impostor,” Bacal says. “It’s part of the learning curve.”
But it is a mistake to think that just because you feel like you don’t fit in, that automatically means the job isn’t right for you.
“It takes a long time to find your stride,” Bacal explains. “It’s OK to feel like that — and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.”
Eventually, if you give yourself time to build confidence, that impostor syndrome will fade and you’ll feel secure in your ability to do your job.
Mistake No. 4: You Stay in a Job Too Long
In a tough economy it’s understandable to be grateful to have a job — any job.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to suck it up and stick with a gig that doesn’t fulfill you on a personal and professional level.
What You Can Learn From It: If you do feel like you’re in a career rut, Palmer recommends shaking things up by discreetly doing some research.
Talk to people at your level in other companies to see if they are having the same experience, she says, so you can better assess if what you are going through is comparable in your industry — or if your situation is uniquely problematic.
“This is especially important for people who have gotten a job right out of college because they have nothing to compare it to,” she adds. “So talk with others and get a reality check.”
And if you know you need to finally move on, don’t beat yourself up over it, thinking you wasted precious time taking the wrong job in the first place.
“People think they have to immediately find the perfect job, but in your 20s, you’re still information-gathering,” Bacal says. “In reality, each job will add to your skill set — even if it teaches you that you don’t want to do anything like it again. That’s a good mistake to make.”