When It Really Is All Your Fault

By DeAnna Burghart

Have you ever stuck your foot in it? I mean really, truly, publicly messed up with a colleague or client?

It’s not a great look.

If you’ve ever glanced over the report or presentation, or reviewed the timeline, or suddenly noticed the address block of the email you just sent (too late!) and realized that you have just stepped in it up to your neck, I’m here for you. I stand with you in solidarity, because I’ve made those mistakes too. By tackling the situation the right way, you can retain trust and save face. You want to leave people thinking, “but look at how well you handled it” rather than “I can’t believe you did that.” Here’s how.

Brace Under Pressure

Once you spot the error, your first instinct may be to freak out. While this is understandable, especially if you’ve just made a costly error, it’s the worst thing you can do. When we react emotionally, we are more prone to defensive or angry responses. We may be tempted to try to conceal the problem, which can have results ranging from comical to criminal to tragic. We justify rather than correcting. That’s a bad look, so we’re going to avoid it.

Brace yourself. We’ll get through this together.

The most important thing right now is to analyze the error and make the most complete recovery possible. We’ll be proactive, not panicked. We do this by looking at things from your boss’s point of view for a moment. Alison Green, author of the popular Ask a Manager blog, summarizes it this way:

When I’m managing someone who makes a major mistake, here’s what I want to know:

  • that they understand that the mistake was truly serious and what the impact could be
  • how it happened, and that they understand how it happened (two different things)
  • what steps they’re taking to ensure nothing similar happens again

This our starting point; the blueprint for a recovery that’s as graceful as possible, without being defensive or shifting blame.

What Just Happened?

Start by assessing the nature of the mistake. What exactly is the difference between what should have happened and what did happen? This is probably obvious, because it’s the reason for that sinking feeling in your stomach right now. But state it to yourself in the clearest and most neutral language possible:

  • The company name is spelled wrong on the title page of the presentation, and your boss is due on stage in an hour.
  • Your team has been working on this project for six months, and you just realized you didn’t include testing in the work.
  • You just sent an email describing all the ways this project is hopeless to the customer instead of your manager.

Yikes. Yes, this looks bad, but how is it bad, and how bad is it? (Again, two different things.) What are the possible or likely effects of the error? Depending on the situation, these could range from embarrassment to loss of business. You have to understand where it falls in that range.

Set aside the worst case scenario you’re imagining right now. Yes, you could get fired for leaving out a month of testing work, but is it really likely? And in any case, we’re going to stick a pin in personal consequences for the moment. Right now, what’s important is the impact to the customer, the project, the team, and the customer. Part of your plan for a graceful and impressive recovery is putting others first in your management of the problem.

With that in mind, what is the most likely worst case scenario resulting from this error? Will this jeopardize an approval? Does it change the deliverable? Is it cosmetic only? Understanding the realistic effects of the error will help you identify the best way to correct it.

Why Did It Happen?

Now that you understand the impact of the error it should be assuming more reasonable proportions. Take a few deep breaths. Better, right? Now identify the cause of the error.

  • Did you skip through a checklist?
  • Did you take an ill-advised shortcut?
  • Was it simple inattention?
  • Are you executing an unfamiliar, convoluted process that’s difficult to follow?
  • Were machine tolerances set incorrectly?

You don’t have to do a full root cause analysis right now. In some circumstances that may be appropriate, but usually you’ll want to save that for a later review. The immediate need is an understanding of why the error happened. It should only take a minute or two.

Notice that none of this addresses who bears the blame. Ultimately that may be you, or it may be the sadist who designed the original 38-step process that tripped you up. Again, we’re setting that aside for right now. Blame-shifting is not a good look, and it doesn’t fix the issue. Just focus on identifying the point of failure.

What Could Have Prevented It?

Once you have identified the problem, address the solution. This comes in two forms: correcting the underlying cause, and correcting this particular error. Addressing both will help restore confidence in your capabilities—both your confidence in yourself, and others’ confidence in you. So now that you know how the error happened, give a few moments’ thought to how you could have avoided it.

If it’s simple and quick (adding an entry to your word processor’s built-in dictionary, deleting an entry from your email client address book), take care of it right now. Otherwise, make a note of the action you need to take and move on.

How Can You Fix It?

Since your focus here is still on the effects this error has on others, your goal is to reduce or remove those effects. With luck, you can do this by bringing the circumstances or deliverable back in line with expectations—if not exactly, then as close as humanly possible given the changed circumstances.

Maybe the solution is obvious and available: You have to correct the presentation, email it to your boss, and text or call about the change. You have to recalculate the project timeline, possibly adding resources to get the work done. These are concrete, proactive actions. Do them, now.

But perhaps you don’t have a solution. Rarely, a mistake is simply unrecoverable. More often, the solution is available; it’s just not available to you. The email you just sent is too damaging for you to apologize in another email; someone will have to make a phone call or take a meeting. The timeline is too far gone; something is going to slip and you don’t have authorization to make the necessary tradeoffs. In that case, it’s time to bring all this to the attention of your manager and ask for help finding a solution.

Collect your information and the remains of your dignity, along with any ideas for possible solutions, and knock on the door. (Don’t leave this to a phone call unless you absolutely have to.) This should be a solution-focused conversation: simple, direct, and business-like. Most of the time, your boss will surprise you by being more focused on helping you find the solution than on flogging you for the error.

Make Amends

Now, it’s time to apologize. You’ll notice this step is last. That’s because our sincere efforts to correct the problem underscore the sincerity of the apology. An apology without any corrective action is, for lack of a better word, lame. Instead, our goal is to show that you have identified the cause of the problem, done everything you can to repair the damage, and taken steps to prevent a recurrence. No excuses, full ownership of your role in the situation.

Now sit back and take your medicine.

Most of the time, it will be surprisingly easy to swallow. There are screaming tyrants out there, but they aren’t as common as legend makes them. Most people are gratified to see action and ownership. They don’t need to dwell on the significance of the error, because you’ve shown you understand how serious the situation is. They don’t need to demand a fix, because you’ve already presented it. They may need to work with you to identify or take the right corrective action, but you’ve already taken steps to set that up too. Instead of a personnel meeting, you’ve just set up a business meeting.

A problem-solving meeting.

You look like a professional. A fallible and imperfect professional, but a professional nonetheless.

Move Ahead

Once the worst is over, don’t dwell on the error. Move forward from this point. Whether you end up being the butt of a few office jokes, or having an unpleasant conversation during your next annual review, it’s important to demonstrate that you are still capable and trustworthy. Take special care to avoid a repeat, keep your head down, and focus on doing a good job. Worrying about the fallout or fixating on the error could, paradoxically, make you more likely to make more mistakes.

As trite as it sounds, your future lies ahead of you, not behind. Whatever the consequences, you have now demonstrated that not only are you human, you know how to recover gracefully when your humanity is front and center. So take a deep breath, brush the dirt off, and continue on with your head held high. Literally every person calling you out on this right now has also made mistakes, and will again. When that day comes, you want them thinking about how well you handled things the day you stepped in it up to your neck. Maybe they’ll even come to you for advice.

When they do, be gracious. It’s a really good look.

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