Everyone makes mistakes, right? I’m not here to judge you for accepting that pull request without really reviewing it or making that slightly off-color joke right as your boss walked around the corner. I am really not that nit-picky about how my coworkers behave, honestly. Do you believe me yet? Can you tell that I feel guilty about my very harsh title.
Well, regardless of how mean it sounds, there is one faux pas I’ve watched people make over and over again. It affects your coworkers and yourself, so stop making excuses and start taking responsibility for your mistakes!
…That’s it. That is what I want to shout at my coworkers every time our boss stares them down and they babble excuses. Stop it, guys! Grow up and learn that it’s totally appropriate to say, “That was my bad — I’ll fix it.” It’s not as difficult as it seems.
Let’s back up and I’ll explain why this is such a problem. We’ll start with me. Maybe I’m the problem, right? Sitting here judging while you try to talk your way out of an awkward situation. Actually, I was the problem for a long time, but not for the reason you probably think. I spent years trying to figure out how to dodge responsibilities. I suffered from anxiety and I feared owning up because I had no idea how to make it right.
I was also a people-pleaser and I didn’t want anyone to know when I’d made a mistake. I certainly didn’t want them to think I was a screw up. That would be embarrassing and they would remember it forever, right? Probably not, but that’s how it feels. It’s actually likely the opposite — when you own up to a mistake you often impress people. We all know how it feels to mess up. When someone is willing to actively take responsibility, we all recognize that it takes courage and self assurance.
At some point in my twenties I just stopped and thought, I’m not happy with just hiding. If realized that living with fear of responsibility meant never having a career or being proud of myself. It was a moment of risk versus reward contemplation. And, honestly, I was ashamed of how often I just curled up and hid from responsibility. This was a turning point in my life.
So I am an extreme example of what happens when you avoid ownership of your actions and that may explain why I take note when others do it. But the people I’m addressing here are people who have careers and are obviously not anxious shut ins. Fair point, reader.
So let’s take this to the office. You’ve just realized that the spreadsheet you sent to your boss has erroneous data because you made a bad calculation. How would you handle it? Do you send a quick follow up with an excuse that something has changed and please see your updated attachment? Do you pretend you didn’t notice and hope no one else does either? Do you begin tendering your resignation to avoid total humiliation? I hope not, but I’ve seen coworkers do at least numbers one and two in that list.
I think it’s fairly obvious why you shouldn’t just ignore the mistake. Decisions could be made based on that data…or maybe your boss just looks like an idiot when he or she presents it. Either way, you have shifted blame to someone else, even if you did not directly point the finger. That’s not cool and it’s actually pretty unethical. I’m sure you’d agree…
So maybe you just come up with a little fabrication about why it was wrong and correct it. The data ends up correct, people are well informed, maybe you even come out looking good — you caught the bug, right? Every time your thoughts start to shift in this direction I want you to hear Will Ferrell in his best role whispering, “You sit on a throne of LIES!” in your ear.
But what about that dreaded moment in a meeting in which all eyes are on you?
Whether it hurts anyone directly or not, lying is never the right answer. Besides, the little white lie you tell is often easy to spot, even if no one calls you out. We all know that math doesn’t really change…unless you did it wrong in the first place. There are so many ways to take responsibility for this tiny error. Just pick one:
- I noticed an error in my calculation, please see my revised attachment.
- Oops! I made a mistake — please see my revised attachment.
- Apologies, the average-of-all-sales-of-all-time-ever column in my previous spreadsheet is incorrect. Please see my revised attachment.
- I made a mistake, so sue me! Then see my revised attachment.
Maybe steer away from number four, but you get the point. It’s not so hard to write a quick “Oops, my bad” email. It comes across more professional and more reasonable. People find honestly refreshing!
An email is one thing, you can sit and think of how to properly word your confession. But what about that dreaded moment in a meeting in which all eyes are on you? Obviously I’m not sitting around snooping on my coworkers’ email chains. These meeting situations are where I see people throwing around excuses like a hot potato. You’re under pressure and you don’t want to be the weak link. I get it, but I also know that you own that process and you worked on it last — you don’t have any idea what possibly could have happened? *side eye*
Now our boss is going around the room trying to figure out what happened. His boss is in his ear about what havoc this little bug has wrought. The whole situation is escalating. Don’t put your coworkers in the position of pointing fingers.
Here’s the bottom line and the solution. If you know you made a mistake and someone catches on or needs to know, just admit it. Don’t make excuses, don’t ignore it, don’t panic. State what happened and, here’s the trick: say you’re working on it. You’re fixing it. You’re on it! Owning up to mistakes is never the end — you then have to take action.
Just take a moment to picture that meeting from other perspectives. You are the boss that is hearing about this issue from other departments. It would be so relieving to hear that the issue has been identified and is actively being worked on. Now you can report back with good news — we’re on it! Now from the coworkers perspective: you just got pulled into a meeting about a issue with a project with which you are not very familiar. This is going to take hours to figure out and resolve. Wait! Your coworker has come to the rescue! They know what the problem is and they are going to take care of it. Back to work you go with a sigh of relief.
Everyone has a positive outcome in this scenario. You may have some work to do to fix whatever the problem was, but you’re the best person to do that work. If you’re not, then see my previous article on how to say “I don’t know”. Now go on, and enjoy the respect and admiration of your coworkers, even when you have screwed up!