How to Admit Your Mistakes

OK, you screwed up. Something’s gone horribly, horribly wrong, and it’s all your fault. And now, it’s time to pay the piper.

Maybe you lost your company’s big client. Maybe you forgot to do a critical part of that big project. Maybe you weren’t there for someone when they needed you, even when you said you would be. Whatever the situation, someone trusted you to do a job and you failed.

Now you’ve got to tell them.

The instinctive reaction to a situation like this is “duck and cover” — protect yourself by any means necessary. Depending on how badly you screwed us, it could mean the end of your job, your career, your relationship, your status, or your reputation.

“Mistakes were made.”

Most people will try to weasel out of their mistakes. There’s a whole language of “weasel-words” people deploy to defer attention away from themselves, to downplay the seriousness of the situation, or even to deny anything went wrong at all.

The all-time universal champs at weaseling are government officials, and their all-time favorite way to weasel is the non-admission of guilt embodied by the phrase “mistakes were made”. It’s what Nixon said about Watergate, it’s what Reagan said about the Iron-Contra affair, it’s what Hillary Clinton said about Whitewater, it’s what Alberto Gonzalez said about his firing of federal prosecutors.

Mistakes were made, but not by me — that’s the implication. They just kind of… happened. Nothing to worry about, really, just mistakes, you know — they were made. Move along, nothing to see here.

“I made a mistake.”

The problem with dodging the bullet is that the bullet is still flying, and still needs to be dealt with — if you dodge it, then it will probably hit someone else. “Whew!” Except not; if you’ve pinned your reputation on your ability to do the job, whatever the job, right, then the failure is still going to stick to you. Plus, you’ll have lost the trust of the people around you, especially the ones who ended up paying for your mistakes, whether by taking the blame or cleaning up the mess. Or, in the worst case, you’ll have distracted enough attention that the mess doesn’t get cleaned up at all.

On the other hand, admitting your fault puts you one step closer to dealing with it, and can often be the first step towards a successful turn-around. At the least, though, it shows that you’re someone with integrity and courage, even in the face of disastrous consequences.

Here are a few pointers about ‘fessing up and dealing with your mistakes:

  • See things from someone else’s perspective: If you’ve made a promise and failed to keep it, put yourself in the other party’s shoes and see how things look from there. How would you feel? What would your response be if you were them? And what action would satisfy you?
  • Be sympathetic: Realize that your mistakes might affect many more people than just you, and recognize the pain you’ve caused. A little bit of sympathy can well be the opening you need to set things right.
  • Take responsibility: Don’t try to weasel out of it, and don’t look around wildly for someone else to blame. Even if your failure came about because someone let you down, you’re ultimately responsible for the projects under your authority.
  • Accept the consequences: It’s hard, I know, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and take your lumps. Few actions come without any consequences at all; be prepared to embrace whatever befalls you as a result of the mistakes you’ve made.
  • Have a plan: Taking responsibility means being prepared to clean up the mess, which means you need a plan. You should have a clear idea of what went wrong and how you can fix it — and how you can avoid it in the future.
  • Be sincere: Don’t pretend to feel sympathy or act phony so that the other person can see how deeply you care. Don’t play the martyr. Show honest emotion — the first step to rebuilding the trust lost.
  • Apologize. No, really. A lot of people go to great lengths to make up for their mistakes — or to hide them — when a simple “I’m sorry” would do the job, and cause a lot fewer hard feelings.

None of these tips will prevent the worst from happening — you may still lose your job, your client, your partner, or your friendship. But you’ll have done so with dignity, instead of disgrace — allowing you to walk away with your head held high.

And by taking full responsibility for your mistakes and acting appropriately, you’ll have set yourself on a path to failing successfully — to learning what there is to learn and moving forward with grace and purpose.

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