Imagine the following scenario: you come into work in a great mood, ready to dive into the day’s challenges. You are met at your desk by your manager, who tells you that you made a mistake yesterday that has some serious consequences, both in terms of the job you were assigned and your manager’s reputation. She is understandably upset with you, and you are thrown completely off kilter.

For most people, a professional mistake that can be embarrassing or have other consequences can be all consuming, at least in the immediate aftermath of the discovery. Most of us will find our mind filled with the mistake, its causes and its consequences, almost to the exclusion of all else. Gone are the plans for the day, the challenges we were planning to address, even the pleasure of seeing friendly coworkers; all we can see is that mistake, looming so large that it obstructs our view of everything else. For some people, this stage will pass in a short time, and they will return to their responsibilities and relationships; for others, this state of mind will continue over the entire day, week or even longer.

This kind of activity has a name: rumination. According to some research, women are more prone to rumination than men; however both sexes are affected, and excessive rumination can become a negative and even destructive activity in the professional sphere.  A ruminator will not let the mistake out of their mind, even long after it occurred. In the case above, an employee with a tendency to ruminate may find himself still dwelling on the mistake into the night, or over the course of the coming weeks. The ruminator will continue to review the details of the mistake, why s/he made it, and what the consequences might be: is my relationship with my manager shot? Will I be demoted? Will I be fired? And so on.

When ruminating in this manner, we may feel that we are addressing and trying to solve the problem; however this is rarely the case. In fact, many people continue to ruminate on a mistake, an insult or a misunderstanding long after the actual problem has been solved.

From rumination to problem solving

Excessive rumination over mistakes can have negative professional consequences. Work relationships with colleagues and with superiors may suffer, as the ruminator may be unable to move on from feelings of blame, embarrassment or insecurity towards them; the ruminator’s quality of work may suffer, as the continual review of the mistake and its consequences drains her energy and creativity, leaving very little left to devote to new tasks.

It can be very hard to break out of rumination. This is true even if in the scheme of things, the mistake we made was not colossal and even under the worst circumstances will not have serious long term consequences. Rumination is more of a conditioned response to problems than a reflection of how serious those problems are.

One approach to breaking the rumination habit is to acquire new responses to professional mistakes, and practice them, even though we are naturally drawn to ruminate on the problem instead. Eventually the new responses will become more natural and habitual, and a natural ruminator will be able to move on after a much shorter period of rumination.

A good alternative to rumination is to adopt a problem solving approach. A problem solver will put fears of consequences and review of details on hold, and do two things. The first will be to find the best way to rectify the mistake as professionally and practically as possible. The next thing will be to engage in an activity that demands their attention and creativity. Sometimes that will be focusing on work challenges, and sometimes it will be taking a break to do something relaxing, yet engaging and creative, such as a crossword puzzle, a craft or a sports activity.  This drastic switch of focus can foil the cycle of rumination and free us from its overwhelming influence.

If you have a tendency towards rumination, you may find that it is hurting you professionally. It is possible, however, to change your automatic responses to mistakes and problems. The way a natural problem solver responds to these situations can be practiced and learned. In particular, it is essential to define the activities that fully engage your interest and creativity, and to force yourself to engage in them when you feel repetitive rumination taking over.

Some rumination after making a professional error is normal and appropriate; in fact, it may be a necessary stage in dealing with the mistake. However developing the ability to switch gears after that initial stage can be critical in its long term impact on professional success.

The professional rewards of developing a problem solving approach and foiling excessive rumination can be great. The broader vision and creative freedom that come from a problem solving attitude make you a candidate for leadership roles and for success at your professional challenges. And the ability to forgive and forget one’s own mistakes and move on will increase your ability to forgive others their mistakes, and help them find creative solutions to professional challenges.