work, screw up, what to do, career help, bosses, mistakes at workEverybody at some point has had the misfortune of hearing the words, “I need to see you in my office,” and your manager’s tone implies that it’s not about a raise.

You walk into their office, your palms sweating, your heart sinking. Your breathing feels constricted as your heart palpitates. You try to look composed on the outside, but inside you’re a nervous wreck. The manager folds his hands, leering into your eyes.

“We need to talk about your performance.”

What to Do

How do you respond?

First, try not to panic! The truth is virtually everyone at some point has made a mistake and ended up discussing it. Learning to handle this conversation is just as important as learning how to ask for raises, or network within a company to increase your chances of promotion.

Simply nod and say, “Okay.” Don’t force a smile or make a joke out of the situation. This is a serious conversation.

Your manager will start discussing what you did wrong. Just keep breathing and nod. Hold eye contact. Wait for him to finish speaking. Pretend that you are just being asked a very difficult interview question.

That’s your cue. Simply say, “I’m sorry. Here’s what I was thinking when I did that. It won’t happen again. I’m going to use this as a learning experience to improve my performance.”

If you really think it necessary, when you’re explaining what went wrong, you could mention generally that there was some miscommunication among the team. Don’t point fingers. You’ll gain a lot more respect if you own up to a mistake than if you blame someone else.

Although this conversation has a stigma of failure, on the flip-side it also is an opportunity to show how you react in the face of failure and criticism. It’s easy to accept praise and hear how great you are. But character is revealed in the face of failure. Do you pout? Or do you double down and take extra pains to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

You will feel flustered for the rest of that day at work. But the next morning just shake it off with a cup of coffee and tell yourself that today is going to be a great day, and you’ll find your groove again.

A Manager’s Perspective

I think it also helps to understand the other side of the coin. Keep in mind that your manager has a boss too, and that they are just as nervous about looking silly as you are. Perhaps the project went wrong and they ended up having the same conversation as you did, just a few minutes earlier. If your boss is the CEO, maybe a client threatened to fire the company, and the shareholders are acting restless.

Unless the manager has a psychosis, he will not enjoy having this conversation. He might come across as overly harsh just because it’s as uncomfortable for him as it is for you. The manager is usually just waiting for you to say that you’re sorry, and that you’ll do better.

The key is, don’t go on and on with excuses. Own the mistake, and say you’ll learn from it, and you’ll walk out with your manager nodding in respect rather than frowning and thinking “bad attitude.”


Remember, how you handle the positive encounters and negative always affects your personal brand. Always own up to your mistakes, and never fall into the easy trap of blaming someone else when you are having that conversation!