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.