Six Tips for Fessing Up to Your Mistakes

Everyone makes them, but no one likes confronting them. When owning up to an error, the trick is to remain calm and explain what happened and what you've learned.

It happens to the best of us: We make mistakes. Whether it is blowing a crucial deadline, mismanaging a project, missing an important meeting or copying one’s boss on an unflattering e-mail, we have our blunders, and sometimes we get called to the carpet for them.

It's no wonder we make mistakes. Today’s stressful workplace expects perfection. This quarter’s numbers have to exceed last quarter’s numbers. Market share has to increase. Work has to be completed faster. We have to be on top of our game practically every minute of the day. It’s just this type of stress that gets the best of us and causes us to blow our stack in front of a subordinate, dash off an e-mail without proofing it or implement a new technology without adequately testing it.

No one intentionally makes a mistake, but they happen anyway. When we do make mistakes, we can’t help but wonder—no matter how high our position in the organization—What will happen to me? Will my colleagues or staff find out? Will I get fired?

Those are all normal questions. But what you need the most in situations where you’ve erred and have to address it with your boss, is calmness and clarity. In many instances, it’s not what happened that matters so much as how you handle the aftermath.

It is important to take responsibility for your mistakes. Here are six tips for fessing up to your faux pas.

1. Prepare Your Side of the Story

Before you speak with your boss, get your ducks in a row. Ask yourself why you made this mistake. The purpose of asking yourself this question is to understand what went wrong so you can make it right. Asking yourself what you can do to prevent this from happening again can help you learn from your mishap.

Get your answers on paper. List what led up to the mistake, what happened and your game plan for fixing it. This process is important because it gives you objectivity and clarity. It also prepares you for your conversation with your manager. If you are too emotional to get perspective on your own, talk to a colleague or someone outside the company to provide you with a different point of view.

You do not want to wing this conversation. Plan what you are going to say. Prepare in advance because in the moment you will be nervous. Practice what you are going to say several times. This will help you come across in a polished and professional manner.

2. Explain What Happened

When you speak with your boss, let him take the lead. You’ll get your chance to speak. Make sure you understand what your boss is conveying to you. Give him the benefit of the doubt that the mistake is being addressed so that you don't make it again—and not to make you feel bad.

Do your best to be as professional as possible. Take the constructive criticism. Know that this conversation isn’t comfortable for your boss either: It’s never easy for anyone to tell another person what he did wrong. Take notes. It will demonstrate that you’re serious about improving. It’ll also provide you with a record of the conversation in the event that it resurfaces in the future.

When it’s your turn to talk, objectively lay out what happened. Act like a reporter who is laying out facts. Discuss what led to the mistake, what the mistake was and the consequence of what happened. Do not place blame. Do not be defensive. Also, do not go on and on about what happened. Relay your side of story and then stop. That will prevent you from groveling and from saying something you might later regret.

How you handle mishaps shows your true character to your boss. If you remain calm and collected, your boss will appreciate how well you are handling yourself.

3. State What You Learned

Every bad situation carries a lesson. What was yours? Tell your boss what you discovered about yourself. Did you learn to be a better team player? Did you learn that you need to follow up with coworkers more? Did you learn that you need to check your work (or whom you copy on e-mail) several times before sending? Be real with your boss. Your boss already knows what you did, so there is no need to cover it up. Use this as an opportunity to show that you are open, flexible and willing to learn (and have learned) from your mistake.

Everybody wants his day in court. This is yours. Giving your side of the story is freeing. It may seem uncomfortable in the moment, but it's not nearly as uncomfortable as having an unresolved issue between you and your boss. Or losing your job over it.

4. Explain Why You Are Better Because of What Happened

You made a mistake and have learned from it. As a result of this newfound knowledge, you are a better worker. You have learned how to confront a problem and bounce back quickly. What you’ve discovered about yourself makes you more valuable to the organization. Tell your boss why you are better, stronger and faster than before. Explain that you will be more careful in the future. Then, commit to preventing the mistake from happening again. Reassure your boss that this was a one time event and will not be a regular occurrence.

5. Be Gracious

Thank your boss for taking the time to have this conversation with you. Your boss is extremely busy, and the fact that he’s made time to discuss this matter with you shows that he values you as an employee and wants to make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice. After all, the alternative was no conversation at all, which would not have given you the chance to tell your side of the story. Appreciation goes a long way toward creating the foundation for a new working relationship with your manager. A thank-you also provides closure. It shows that both sides are ready to put the issue behind them.

6. Move On

Once the issue has been discussed and resolved, it’s time for you to move on. Although you may still be upset about what happened, you don’t want to dwell on it and have it cloud your thinking and judgment going forward. Holding on to past mistakes will negatively affect your future performance. Know that you can trust yourself and your decisions again. Remember, when you fall off the horse, you have to get back on. All great leaders make mistakes, and this was yours. This mistake doesn’t have to affect your standing in the organization unless you let it. Take what you learned about yourself and the organization and use this learning as a steppingstone in your career.

Deborah Brown-Volkman is the president of Surpass Your Dreams, a career, life and mentor coaching company that works with senior executives, vice presidents and managers who are looking for new career opportunities or seeking to become more productive in their current role. She is the author of Coach Yourself To A New Career and How To Feel Great At Work Everyday. Deborah can be reached at www.career-escape-program.com, info@surpassyourdreams.com or at 631-874-2877.

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