Reader Question: Taking Responsibility for Mistakes at Work

A reader asks:

My manager recently told me that she doesn’t like the way I handle mistakes. I do make mistakes, and they’re not always trivial ones, but I usually try to fix them and move on. Apparently since I don’t inform her when this happens, it’s coming across to her as me not taking responsibility or seeming “cavalier” about my work quality. But I don’t understand what she’s looking for. Can you help?

Well, first, you need to know what’s going on in your manager’s head when she learns that you’ve made a mistake. Beyond thinking about the repercussions of the mistake itself, she’s worrying about what it means for the larger picture: Did the mistake happen because of sloppy work habits or was this one isolated incident? Is there a fundamental problem with your systems or approach to the work? Do you realize that this is a big deal, or are you shrugging it off and thus likely to let something similar happen in the future?

Once you understand this, the formula for handling a mistake well becomes more intuitive: Tell your boss what happened, take responsibility for it, and tell her how you’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again.

If you don’t do each of those steps, you leave your boss wondering if she can trust that similar mistakes won’t happen again.

After all, if you don’t tell her what happened, or if you put it off out of fear of the conversation, you’re sending the message that you value your own comfort over the needs of the work.

Taking responsibility means using words like: “I really messed this up. I’m sorry.” (In fact, the more concerned you seem, the less likely she is to feel she needs to impress the severity on you. If you proactively show that you get it, there’s no need for her to underscore it.) But if you instead act like it wasn’t a big deal or get defensive about it, you can actually compound the damage: Your boss will be far more alarmed that you don’t really care that you made a mistake than she will be by the mistake itself. Rather than making the mistake less noticeable, what will really stand out is that you’re not taking responsibility for it.

The third step – telling your boss how it happened and how you plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again – isn’t so much that she wants to know as it is that she wants to know that you know. And that’s because if you don’t understand how it happened, you’re not well equipped to keep it from happening again.

You’re going to make mistakes from time to time, and any halfway sane boss knows that. As long as your mistakes remain occasional and not constant, how you handle them will be what matters most.

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