Learning to Own Up to Your Mistakes

sorry note

News flash – nobody likes making mistakes!  But unfortunately, since we’re all human, there’s no good way to avoid the occasional slip-up.  As a result, it isn’t the fact that you make mistakes that matters.  What really counts is how you handle yourself when these failures occur.

Let’s say you’ve goofed up on a big project at work and – as a result – your team won’t be able to meet an important deadline.  Now that you’ve made the mistake, you have two options.  You can:

  1. Pretend like it didn’t happen and wait until somebody discovers that you’ve screwed up.
  2. Own up to your mistake and present your boss with a plan of action for dealing with any negative effects that stem from your error.

If you take the first route, you aren’t really saving yourself any hassle (although it might feel like it at the time).  Eventually, your mistake will be discovered and when this happens, your boss and your team members will all be upset that you tried to shirk your responsibility in derailing the project.

On the other hand, if you let your team know right away what’s happened and how you plan to deal with it, you’ll still face the same frustration – but that anger will be paired with a level of respect for you because you’ve owned up to your mistakes.  Neither situation allows you to avoid professional judgment completely, but one option lets you minimize damage to your reputation.

Of course, knowing that owning up to your mistakes will help you save face – actually doing it is another thing altogether!

If your “go to” move is to deflect and defer responsibility, don’t worry.  You can learn how to own up to your mistakes – even in the most uncomfortable of situations.  It won’t be easy, but it’s a valuable skill to develop when it comes to managing your professional reputation.

Here’s how to do it:

Step #1 – Assess the scope of your mistake

As soon as you’ve realized that a mistake has occurred (whether by that sinking feeling you get in your stomach or through the actions of a coworker), take a second to determine how severe of an issue you’re facing.  Is the mistake something that can be easily resolved, or will it require significant reparations to correct?

If you’re facing a small issue (like an email etiquette mistake), you may be able to correct the problem without the involvement of other parties.  In this case, owning up to your mistake may not be truly necessary.  However, if the issue is larger, take a few moments to trace out its eventual ramifications.  You can’t move on to the next step in the process – coming up with a plan of action – until you understand exactly who and what will be affected by your mistake.

Step #2 – Come up with a plan of action

Once you have a rough idea of how your mistake will affect others, it’s time to brainstorm a game plan.  As a general rule, you’ll find the owning up to your mistake is much easier – and much better received – if you also offer a series of possible action steps to resolve your issues.

Following from our delayed project example earlier, identifying this type of mistake could prompt you to develop a plan of action that includes any of the following steps:

  • Working nights to make up for lost time (if doing so will help)
  • Shuffling resources to ensure that other parts of the project can be finished on schedule
  • Apologizing directly to the customer (if necessary) for the delays you’ve caused

In the worst situations, it might not be possible to come up with a game plan if there are no actions that can be taken to help remedy your mistake.  However, even in this case, it’s important not to skip the next step…

Step #3 – Use scripts to make confessing easier

After you’ve completed the first two steps, it’s time for the most difficult part of this process – actually owning up to the issues you’ve created.

If the thought of telling others that you’ve screwed up leaves you shaking in your boots (especially if the person you need to own up to is your boss), you can make the process easier by creating a script and practicing it before you fess up.  For example, try something like the following:

“Hi [Boss] – do you have a second?  I just wanted to give you a heads up on an issue that might delay our project [or lead to some other issue].  I made [this mistake] and I expect that, as a result, we’ll have to [deal with these consequences].  I’m sorry for the inconvenience and my part in this, but I think we can make the situation right by [taking my game plan actions].”

Resist the urge to make excuses when delivering your script.  Everyone has excuses and they tend to be perceived as attempts to deflect, rather than to accept responsibility.  Hopefully, using this type of script will mitigate any disciplinary actions coming your way – but there’s no guarantee.  The only thing that is guaranteed is that you’ll avoid the humiliation of being called out on your mistake later on by owning up to it and taking responsibility from the start.

2 thoughts on “Learning to Own Up to Your Mistakes

  1. Li

    nice script! It definitely takes control of the situation, and minimizes the consequences since you’ve already done the legwork on how to damage control

  2. Sue

    Owning up to any mistakes where I used to work just wasn’t done. The aim was always to find someone else to blame if possible. So much so that some people went out of their way to make sure there was a fall guy.

    I was rubbish at this and believed in owning up to any mistakes. I like the way you do it here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *