CHS Careerist: Lessons Learned, Part III

A few months ago, I was sitting with a group of peers talking about how challenging it can be to supervise employees.  All of us agreed that the most frustrating problem we face is subordinates who can’t own their mistakes.  One friend supervises a staff of 20, and has two employees who–no matter what goes wrong, no matter how serious or small the mistake–will make excuse after excuse for their behavior and accept only a middling level of responsibility.

“I am so tired of hearing, ‘I made a mistake, BUT…’ or ‘This isn’t my fault because,’ or explaining that they messed up only to have them feign confusion and innocence,” she confessed.  “All I want is someone to say, ‘I [effed up], but I can fix it.”

Taking responsibility is the single most important lesson that I learned while working on the Hill.  My previous Chief of Staff and the Member both made it clear from day one, explicitly and implicitly, that excuses and equivocations would not be tolerated.  Trying to pass the buck would only make your situation worse.

When mistakes happen, when things go wrong, it’s very rarely just one person’s fault.  Typically, errors are created by a combination of factors.  But if a mistake is made, don’t argue with your Boss about where to assign the blame and don’t give her a laundry list of reasons why something happened.  It is much easier to move on from a bad situation if you a) take full responsibility for the situation, b) present a remedy for the current issue and c) don’t let it happen again.

Perhaps this behavior is best illustrated with an example.

Years ago, I assigned two interns a simple task:  Sort 1,600+ pieces of mail in two days, so that we could send out responses on Thursday.  Over the course of the project, I checked in with them to see how it was going and was assured that all was well.  Then, close-of-business Thursday arrived and, lo and behold, there were still 300+ pieces of mail left to be sorted.

Luckily, I had built a cushion-day into my timeline, since the mail didn’t actually have to go out until Friday.  But I was truly ticked off that the interns had messed up a fairly straightforward task that wasn’t fun, but should have been easy.

When I asked Intern 1 for an explanation, I was told that the task was just much harder than they anticipated.  That sorting was taking longer because they had been given other work to do by other staffers.  And that, since the mail didn’t go out until Friday anyway, he didn’t think it was a “hard deadline.”

Intern 2, on the other hand, apologized for not finishing the task on time.  Said she would stay late to get it done, and explained that she should have done a better job of prioritizing her work.

Guess which one got a form letter recommendation and which got a personally written one?

Harry Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”  The same goes for blame.  Bosses don’t want excuses, they want employees they can depend on to do it right 98-percent of the time and fix their mistakes the other two-percent.

Errors are unavoidable.  You can be diligent and careful and responsible, and circumstance can still mess things up.  No matter what happens, it’s important to stay calm, accept responsibility, fix the problem and then, move on.

Some employees think that offering a Boss proof that the mistake wasn’t theirs or going on the defensive is a good strategy, I’ve found the opposite to be true.  Bosses may want an explanation, but they want one that isn’t designed to deflect responsibility.  And as for going on the defensive, I find few things more annoying than an employee who wants to maintain an aura of infallibility.

Making excuses, assigning blame, trying to pass the buck, being defensive or getting upset at your Boss for being upset with you will only make the situation worse.  So the next time you make a mistake leave the buts, the becauses and the incensed attitude at the door.  Fall on your sword, remedy the situation and come to work the next day and keep plodding on.  Just don’t let it happen again.



  1. Mary says:

    I have 2 direct reports and both of them make excuses and pass blame when an issue is addressed. It drives me crazy, and it also makes me think I can’t trust them with more responsibility, which means I don’t assign them more difficult tasks which could end up meaning significant pay raises.

    April 17, 2013/Reply
  2. J says:

    Going hand in hand with this, I think proactively communicating issues ahead of time is key. If I anticipate a problem, think I might be late in meeting a deadline, have competing responsibilities, etc it’s important to come up with a solution rather than trying to skate by without anyone noticing. When you have multiple supervisors, one person doesn’t always know what tasks everyone else has assigned you or sometimes something happens that’s out of your control. I make sure I communicate with all of my supervisors regarding my plan of action. Each of my supervisors has complimented me on this style of communication and problem solving in my performance reviews and it’s led to a few promotions already. If something isn’t going as they planned, people would rather have a heads up than hear about it after the fact.

    April 17, 2013/Reply
  3. steph says:

    Luckily, I had a boss at the start of my career who taught me to apologize if I made a mistake, learn from it and MOVE ON. Nobody (boss or subordinate) wants to dwell, so just fix it and get on with work.

    April 17, 2013/Reply
  4. K says:

    This post is so spot-on! I’ve only been working in a professional arena for 3 years, and I see people all time – of all ages – who refuse to acknowledge they may have contributed to a mistake, let alone take full responsbility for something. I remember the first big mistake I made at my job and I was terrified to tell my supervisor. Once I did, he commended me for being upfront about it and having a solution ready. I wish more individuals would recognize that employers value honesty and responsibility rather than dodging around situations and looking for a scapegoat.

    April 17, 2013/Reply
  5. B says:

    Perhaps this is a silly question, but this post really hit home with me. I had a boss recently who, no matter what happened, no matter whose fault something was, I ended up taking the fall. And whenever I would attempt to explain (for instance, being screamed at for a project not being finished that was blatantly given to someone else on the team), they would yell at me for attempting to “throw someone under the bus”. I’m more than happy to take my share of the responsibility, or even a bit more, if need be, but it’s getting frustrating having to take the fall for every mistake that happens on the team, when I have no leadership role or power of any sort to prevent these things, and no one else is forced to take any semblance of responsibility for their actions?

    April 17, 2013/Reply
    • Maria Blanco Pate says:

      I am not sure you have a question, or what the question is.

      For whatever reason, your boss’ perception is that you are not competent and therefore you are the “usual suspect” when something goes wrong.

      Guess what? Reality does not matter; your bosses perception does. If you are interested in the job, focus on changing your boss’ idea of the kind of employee you are. How? For starters, stop whining. Do the work, and make sure you cover all bases so it gets done. Do more than you need/have/are asked to and attract positive attention as often as possible.

      If this does not sound appealing, I suggest you move on. It is very difficult to change a boss’ perception of your abilities, and complaining about how unfair things are is a not a good start.

      PS. For the record, I have been working since I was 17. I have a BS in psych, and MBA and I am now 52 years old and I supervise hundreds of employees in over 40 locations. I may not have seen it all, but I have seen and heard most. If this sounds harsh, it is just my desire to share something with you that I wish someone would have shared with me early on and spared me some grief 🙂 Good luck!

      April 17, 2013/Reply
    • Liza says:

      Let’s face it, some work situations are abusive and negative, and you need to think hard about whether this is something you have actually brought upon yourself (whining, being passive aggressive), or, if you have really just found yourself in a bad work situation.

      I have seen this before, and if this behavior continues and you determine it really isn’t your fault, my best advice is to start looking elsewhere. When you are targeted as the scapegoat for everything, even if most of it isn’t your fault, the people around you and sometimes even you begin to believe it. Sometimes no matter what you do, you cannot change a boss’s negative perception of you, especially if they are determined to maintain it. Some might say to try and stick it out, but I would recommend against waiting too long. This gets into the “tiara syndrome” that Sandberg’s “Lean In” talks about: that women think if they just put their heads down and work hard, someone will notice and will reward them. This just isn’t the case, and you need to be strategic about your career. If you have become the target for blame, if you boss clearly doesn’t believe in you, either through your own fault or the fault of others, you likely won’t advance. That stigma sticks.

      This treatment also becomes cyclical and can really impact your self worth. If you are constantly blamed for things beyond your control, you start to believe it really is your fault. This impacts your confidence, and I have found, ultimately your effectiveness.

      April 18, 2013/Reply
  6. E says:

    This is exactly why I disliked my time working on the Hill. Mundane assignments like sorting mail somehow have a priority over the other assignments that the other staffers gave to these interns (which are certainly more important than sorting mail). Not only that, but everyone seems to think their assignment is the most important, even if it is something like sorting mail. I know your point was not what I’m talking about, but it just makes me cringe that THIS was the example you gave.

    April 17, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      It’s not that the mail was the priority. It’s that instead of asking a supervisor for an extension to do something else, they failed to complete the task. Also, I’m not aware of any jobs where you don’t start out doing “unimportant” work.

      April 17, 2013/Reply
      • Erin says:

        It depends on the Member. I work for a senior member of Congress and mail is the boss’ number one priority in Congress, hands down. The Member reads every piece of mail that comes in and approves every response that goes out. Interns in our office are privileged to be assigned mail to draft that the Member reads, edits, and approves.

        April 17, 2013/Reply
  7. Lindsay says:

    My spouse manages a team of 8 young adults getting a “fresh start” after being in the juvenile justice system. He had performance reviews today and said that the single thing they could do to be better employees is to take responsibility for themselves. Funny how this is the biggest issue no matter what type of work environment you’re in.

    April 17, 2013/Reply
  8. Tierney says:

    Great advice! I always tell my team to “Never ruin an apology with an excuse”. If you’ve proven yourself a diligent, capable employee and you make a mistake, chances are a good manager isn’t going to immediately think that you’re incompetent. Just get it fixed.

    WAYYY back in college, I used to be a head server at a fancy restaurant, and I ALWAYS was trying to drill this concept into new hires. If you get something wrong, or someone’s food is cooked wrong, or you forget to bring them their fifth spoon, just say “I’m so sorry, let me fix that for you.” Don’t blame the kitchen, the hostess, the weather. People who are upset don’t want to hear excuses–they just want to hear that you care and that it will be okay.

    April 18, 2013/Reply
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