We all make mistakes at work from time to time. Maybe you blew a big deadline on a critical project, or emailed the wrong person sensitive information. Or, perhaps you made a more severe error that impacted your company’s bottom line.
No matter how big or small, no one wants to admit when they have screwed up, especially at work.
“When we make a mistake we experience a cognitive dissonance, which is a form of mental discomfort and tension,” says Mary Hladio, a workplace expert and president of Ember Carriers leadership group. “This is partially because we know it will hurt our personal, as well as our professional, reputation. And your reputation is essentially the foundation upon which your brand equity is built. So, the natural tendency is to cover up the mistake — but this can be more damaging than taking your lumps by accepting responsibility.”
The more open and honest you are about the matter, the higher the chance of resolving it quickly without getting into major trouble, she says.
David Parnell, a legal consultant, communication coach, and author, agrees that more often than not, it is best to get out in front of any issues or aftershocks from a mistake. “That starts with letting your superiors know what happened,” he says. “Everyone makes mistakes, including your superiors. And while they know this as well as you, they also want to know that you will fix the error and won’t do it again.”
In this day and age of free-flowing information, it is difficult to keep secrets, anyway, he adds. “Your superiors will usually find out anyway, so it’s certainly best if they hear about it from you.”
Here’s how to tell your boss you’ve screwed up:
Assess the damage. Calculate the potential damage of your mistake before the conversation, suggests Skip Weisman, a leadership and workplace communication expert. “The more information you can bring regarding what happened and what the potential impact may be, the better.” When you fully assess what went wrong and the potential consequences, it will show your boss that you care and want to learn from the mistake.
Admit your mistake immediately. It’s like pulling a Band-Aid off, Hladio says. It is painful in the beginning, but as soon as you get it over with, the healing can start. “Your boss may be angry and upset, but he or she will eventually cool down. The sooner you identify and admit the mistake the sooner you can start to fix the problem.”
Be direct and unambiguous. “No buffering. No euphemism. No misdirection,” Parnell says. Let your boss know exactly what happened and why; take full ownership; and let them know why and how it will not happen again. “Forgiveness is much easier if they are comfortable that the error won’t be repeated,” he says. This strategy — complete transparency — is the best way to convince them of that.
Take responsibility with humility. Weisman suggests saying something like: “I missed the deadline for submitting the application on the part of our client by three hours because I misread the instructions and was unaware they required us to submit the application by 5 p.m. Eastern Time, and since we’re in Pacific Time, I thought we had three more hours.” And avoid saying something like: “Well, their deadline was on Eastern Time even though most of their clients are on Pacific Time like us, so the application was filed three hours late.”
“The former involves the person taking responsibility for misreading the instructions and not confirming the deadline time, whereas in the latter they are blaming the instructions and implying that the application was generically filed late without specifically saying they did it,” he explains.
Take a step back and breathe. Before you begin stressing about what’s going to happen next, or start visualising yourself being fired, allow yourself time before jumping into action. “Even if the problem is a big one, being stressed or anxious impedes your ability to think clearly,” says Hladio.
Don’t throw others under the bus. Blaming others will only make you look petty, Hladio says. “Not taking full responsibility will only worsen the situation, and can lead others to distrust your abilities in the future.”
Devise an action plan. Ideally when you first admit that a mistake was made, you’ll also present a plan to fix the problem and avoid similar ones going forward. “This shows the boss that, to at least some degree, you’re in control,” Hladio says.
“Making mistakes can erode the trust people have in you, so you need to do everything possible to quickly rebuild that trust,” Weisman adds. Being proactive in identifying the cause and solutions can help.
Do everything in your control to make it right. “Whether it’s working late to correct the problem so others are not impacted, or swallowing your pride to apologise to those affected, you’ll need to do whatever you can to stop the problem from spreading and to control the damage,” Hladio says.
Prepare yourself for the consequences. Admitting mistakes doesn’t mean you will be immune to the repercussions, she says. “Even if you do everything you can to be upfront, apologetic, and to fix the problem, you should know that that there may be fallout from for what happened. You will need to rebuild trust, but the best thing you can do is to document lessons learn so the mistake is not made again by you are anyone else.”
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Once you tell your boss, go easy on yourself. As Albert Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Remember that mistakes lead to innovation; mistakes lead to breakthroughs; mistakes can create policies; and mistakes can turn into opportunities. “We learn from mistakes; rarely do we learn from our successes,” Hladio concludes.
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