What’s An IT Manger To Do When You Screw-Up BIG TIME?

by drjim on February 4, 2009

We All Make Mistakes At Work, It's What We Do Next That Matters Most...

We All Make Mistakes At Work, It’s What We Do Next That Matters Most…

So I’ll be the first one to admit it – I’ve screwed up big time at work. It was awhile back, but as I remember it I was responsible for crunching some numbers that were going into a report that was being used to plan what the company was going to be working on for the next year. Somehow I forgot to include some critical numbers. I discovered my mistake. What should I have done next?

As IT Leaders, we’d like to appear as though we never make mistakes to both our superiors as well as to our teams. However, the sad reality is that we do screw-up and sometimes in a big way. What hurts the most about doing things like this is that it flies in the face of how we view ourselves (as perfect). The fancy name for what this creates is called “cognitive dissonance“.

Phyllis Korkki has looked into this situation in a piece that she wrote for the  New York Times and to get to the heart of the matter she talked with the social psychologist Carol Travis (author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts).
What Travis says is that internally we look at what we’ve done and we say to ourselves “There is no way that I could have screwed-up on something that I view myself as being good at.” Once we have this thought, then our mind moves on and starts to come up with various forms of self-justification for what we’ve gone and done. How do we do this? You pick: lies, blame, defensiveness, etc.

So this might be a bad situation to find yourself in, but what can you possibly do to make it worse? Simple – don’t tell anyone and try to cover it up. Just in case you haven’t learned your lesson from Enron, Worldcom, or most recently Satyam over in India then listen and understand. Covering up your error will lead to bigger and bigger problems that will eventually entangle you so securely that you can’t get free. Talk about stress!

So once you’ve made the mistake, what SHOULD you do? First off, realize that this mistake is not necessarily a reflection of either your intelligence or your talents. If you can realize this, then you should be able to mentally separate who you are as a person from this event.

What next? Ok – so this is the tough part. You need to point out your error sooner than later. The first step in doing this is to go to the people whom your error has affected and do that most painful of all actions, apologize.

Your next step has to be to get to work undoing the damage that you’ve done and fixing the situation that you’ve caused. This is not easy to do either, but you should realize that it’s the right thing to do. It turns out that keeping the knowledge that you’ve screwed something up inside will be a bigger burden than just getting it out into the open.

What if I get fired? Well that’s always a possibility; however, wouldn’t you rather go out because you pointed out something that you did instead of being found out by someone else? It’s all a matter of who you want to be in control of your life.

A lot rests on how your boss deals with your slip up. If he / she is going to get ticked off, then you are going to be a lot less likely to point it out. As an IT Leader you need to realize that how your team views you will also determine if they feel comfortable coming to you when they screw up (and they will).

Hopefully your boss will realize that having you point out your mistake earlier rather than later  is a good thing. Hey, if you’ve got a worker who is pointing out their mistakes to you then that’s a very good thing. If it keeps happening over and over again, then you need to move the person to a different postion.

In my case, my boss turned out to be incredibly cool. He sighed because he realized that his management was not going to be happy about the correction that was going to be required and then he went and “fell on the sword” – he accepted blame for my mistake. Talk about building loyalty! Man, I double and triple checked everything that I gave him after that and I would have gladly fallen on the sword for him…

Have you ever screwed up big time at work? Did you discover your mistake or did someone else? What did you do when you found out that you had made an error? What happened because of it? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon February 7, 2009 at 3:03 pm

I’m beginning to realize the power of a culture where mistakes can be confessed safely. A couple of our new PMP project managers take the “lesson’s learned” step of project closure seriously. Along with the efforts that worked well, they point out the team’s and most especially their own mistakes. They’re painfully honest. They and their teams won’t make those mistakes again. I watch the old-school project managers who make excuses make the same mistakes in project after project. Perhaps senior management sees them as equals – the honest and the blame-evaders – but I’m amazed at the difference in results that I see.

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Dr. Jim Anderson February 10, 2009 at 10:10 am

Anon: Wow – the willingness to hold up that mirror and gaze into it after a project is done is very tough to do. I’ll be interested in finding out if the new project managers can keep it up over time or if the weight of the organization eventually causes them to revert to the way that everyone else wraps up projects…!

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