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The Art of Taking Responsibility

It’s inevitable. At some point or another you’re going to make a mistake at work. True, that mistake may cost you in the short term, but a bigger consideration for the long term is how you handle dealing with it.

For sure, trying to hide your mistake or pawning off the responsibility for it on someone else will most likely end up boomeranging, and then the consequences will be much worse. In the moment it may seem impossible to survive your error, but you can minimize its impact by doing three things:

Bring the mistake to the attention of your manager or an appropriate decision maker right away. If you wait for your manager to find you, it will only compound your problem. Ideally, you should go to her before she even knows about it.

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Take Responsibility. That means own up to the mistake by admitting to whomever is in charge that the mistake was yours. Begin by apologizing: “I’m sorry.” And then explain what the problem is. “I transposed two numbers, and instead of ordering 2,950 items I ordered 9,250.”

Have a solution. Managers already have their plates full. They do not want to have to fix your problem as well. It’s much better to have a solution that you can offer than to make your problem their problem to solve. “I contacted the Omaha division and they could use 3,000 and Minneapolis can take the rest. It turns out that we will come out slightly ahead with the larger order, but that doesn’t excuse my error.”

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I learned first hand the value of following these two steps when I was the PR officer for a small college. I had developed a new communication to be sent to all the college’s audiences—students, staff, alumni, parents, and friends. When the first edition arrived at my office, I immediately saw that I had misspelled a word in the headline on the front page. There was simply no way I could send it out. I called the printer and found out how quickly the mistake could be fixed and the piece reprinted and how much it would cost. Armed with that information, I went to the president and took responsibility for the problem. I told him the printer could have the corrected and reprinted piece reprinted in two days, and that it would cost about two-thirds of the original printing price. I asked him if I could proceed with the reprint. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He simply said “Okay,” and went back to his work.

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Not all problems will resolve so easily, but by bringing it to the attention of the decision maker, by taking responsibility and owning up to a mistake, and by having a solution, it shows you to be a person of integrity and gives you the best chance of resolving the problem with as little negative impact on you as possible.

If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.

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Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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