Article: Damage Control: Owing up to a mistake at work

Life @ Work

Damage Control: Owing up to a mistake at work

Everybody makes mistakes, and it is up to you to turn that mistake into a learning opportunity, or a setback.
Damage Control: Owing up to a mistake at work

If there is one universal characteristic that binds all humans, it is probably that we are all flawed. We make mistakes, and we learn from them – and this is something that is consciously engrained in our development as a human. But a critical part of this development is largely neglected and not focussed upon consciously – the step to own up to mistake.

Come to think of it, as children, when we make mistakes, the paralysing fear of what comes next – in the form of a scolding or punishment – makes us lie more than we should. So we blame the missing cookie on our sibling or we blame the broken vase on the pet dog, before actually confessing to it. It is very important to note here, that we learn what we did was wrong, but hardly ever realise the importance of owning up to it. A lot many times, this realisation of the importance of owning up to our mistakes doesn’t come in until a very later stage in life, or doesn’t come in at all. The way our society is structured, and generally how we are brought up, admitting failure is equated to weakness, and hence, many prefer to not do it at all. 

Problem arises in the workplace, where when you commit a mistake, and fail to take ownership of it, simply because you haven’t been taught to. Even if you weren’t the only one responsible, it is essential to be honest to others, and yourself, rather than pretending to be perfect. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter which position you are at, or the magnitude of the mistake you made – admitting to it is critical to set an example to your juniors or colleagues, for it reflects on your integrity and ability to take responsibility. The reflex human reaction is probably to cover up the mistake or failure, and save yourself, and owning up to that mistake comes in after much thought and introspection. Here’s what you can do to minimize the damage done after you make a mistake, and make the ownership process a little easier:

Admit it to yourself first: The foremost and most important step of all is realising yourself that you made mistake. Often when we make excuses to ourselves, by telling us that it isn’t really our fault, or that it isn’t that big of a deal, we actually start believing it, and become defiant if somebody else tries to hold us accountable for it. Hence, first hold yourself accountable. Realise what you did wrong, and how could it have been avoided, and the rest of the process will be much smoother. 

Don’t wait for it to be found: Don’t sit around and wait for the problem to take a life of its own, and make an honest admission to your senior or the concerned colleague about what you have done wrong. No matter how bad the situation is, nipping it in the bud is essential. You will have to face much more heat if it is found on later that you made a mistake, and didn’t report it, or worse, tried to cover it up.

Don’t give conditional apologies or take partial ownership: Regardless of how bad the things are, do not begin by deflecting the blame onto someone else. An apology must be clearly worded, and not ambiguous, and do not downplay the magnitude of the problem. Extending a half-hearted or vague admission or apology often does more damage than you may imagine. 

Get a PoA ready: Come up with an effective plan of action to combat the challenge, and explain why the mistake happened in the first place. Address the root cause of the problem, and if the same was your negligence, it is your responsibility to come up with a plan to fix it. 

Do not be afraid to ask for help: Since you are in a pickle already, do not be too proud to ask for help and resources from others. Take assistance from anyone who you think can be helpful – and do not be afraid or ashamed to do so. Also, be prepared to have your actions under scrutiny and have your work subjected to review more often. 

Make a strong case for why it won’t happen again: Once the crisis is averted, make sure you relay your resolve to not let the same mistake be repeated, and what your learning from the entire episode is. A small and brief explanation, thanking everyone who pitched in to help you, while making a case for the measures you have taken to prevent such mistakes in the future is the ideal way to bring the process of owning up to it, to a natural end. 

Hence, accepting responsibility and your role in a particular mistake shows that you are willing to learn and grow, and works in your favour in the long-term. Being defensive or covering up a misstep often evokes a feeling of mistrust. The key thing to remember is, everybody makes mistakes, and it is up to you to turn that mistake into a learning opportunity, or a permanent setback. 

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Topics: Life @ Work, Watercooler

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