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It's a mistake not to reveal our mistakes

Columnist Dave Conrad says hiding mistakes or, worse, blaming others for one's own errors is juvenile thinking that damages a business' reputation.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
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Dear Dave,

I work for a Rochester company. A lot of good people work here, and they work hard. Plus, they show a great deal of pride and integrity in their work. However, I have a couple of coworkers who make a lot of mistakes and worse, they try to cover up their mistakes without doing anything to correct them. They seem to get away with these errors. I am not their manager, just a fellow employee. What can be done with this situation?

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— H

Dear H,

I used to always ask my business students: Success is easy to deal with, but how well do you handle your mistakes? Do you embrace them as opportunities to showcase your leadership skills, or do you shy away and look to cover up your flaws? And do you approach your mistakes with a desire to eliminate them and learn from your mistakes?

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The key to overcoming the tendency to cover up our flaws and mistakes is to understand that doing so is a failure that typically makes the problem worse. Also, our inability to own up to our mistakes actually decreases our personal credibility and trust with others, contrary to the belief of many political and business leaders.

Making errors at work can be embarrassing and many people become defensive or evasive when faced with a mistake that they made. However, the best way to handle a mistake is to recognize it, fix it, and be sure to learn from the mistake. Your learning can be shared with others, if they want to hear about it. If not, you tried to educate them, and I am sure you do not want to be known as the “office savior.”

Also, things could be worse: Your coworkers could be pointing the finger at you as being the one who made the mistakes and caused all kinds of crazy trouble. There are no limits to what people will do to prevent themselves from looking bad – not least of which is the deceitful tendency to always blame others for their mistakes. This is junior high thinking at best.

Coming clean is leadership

Coming clean and admitting errors takes courage: a characteristic of quality leadership.

Admitting your errors also invites others to do the same, which contributes to the creation of a healthy work environment. And if your immediate and upper management deny the fact that errors have occurred – because they think that form of honesty will make them look bad and blemish their character – you are facing an even bigger problem, because mistake-denial is happening at several levels.

You can help foster an environment of mistake candor, even if the mistakes are not your own.

When others make errors – and it is a certainty that they will – don’t get all over them for the things they’ve done, and above all, do not criticize them or belittle them. Separate the person from the mistake and give them a chance to make amends for their errors. Let them save face.

If you act like the office cop, you will be about as popular as going on a diet.

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The best leaders understand that it’s how they handle their biggest mistakes that truly define them. The next time you, yourself, are the cause of a workplace screw-up, do not shy away from it. Put aside your ego, admit your mistake, apologize and follow through with action to fix it.

Plus, in doing so, you will sleep better at night.

The ability to admit that you've made a mistake shows not only character, but also confidence, because you're not afraid of how you'll look. In contrast, making excuses comes across as shallow and immature. But, to be clear, try and avoid making mistakes in the first place. Error prevention is more powerful than trying to patch up mistakes every day.

Fixing the Problem

I think it is human nature to want to cower and hide rather than confess to mistakes that have taken place at work – for fear of being reprimanded, given a written warning, or out of fear of being fired. These are natural feelings, but for those who lie when the mistakes are uncovered, will risk losing their job anyway.

However, I would go to your manager and explain what you see. You may not become employee of the year, but it is the right thing to do. Use a calm, straightforward style without naming and shaming others and do not cast any blame or accusations – that is not your job; just explain what you have observed in a cool, calm manner.

Tell your boss your purpose in coming to her or him is to help create an environment in which quality can thrive and workers can be proud of their achievements and learn from their mistakes.

Make it clear that your concern is that covering up mistakes sends the wrong signal to employees and customers, and is bad for business.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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