IT Employment

Making a mistake does not make you an idiot

Everyone makes mistakes. But it seems that everyone is also obsessed with making sure no one knows about them. Maybe it's time to take responsibility and earn respect.

The Latin term mea culpa"means "through my fault." I have looked this term up online and I found it in my trusty hardcover Webster's dictionary. Nowhere did I see the term translated as, "I'm an idiot." Yet, that's what most people think will be inferred by others when they speak those words or any of their brethren like, "Sorry about that" or "I made a mistake."

Trust me when I tell you that many employees share this erroneous mindset (and you know who you are). Admitting fault is not a public acknowledgment that you are a worthless human being and should be fired immediately. Apologizing for an action you took that caused a problem for a coworker does not make you the office weakling and brand you with a scarlet letter. Making mistakes makes you human, and owning up to them earns you respect and maybe even renders you endearing.

However, never admitting responsibility for a mistake is an acknowledgment that you value your own "image" more than you do the welfare of your company. I wouldn't want you working for me.

If people spent as much time and energy acknowledging their mistakes as they do justifying their bad decisions and figuring out how to dodge responsibility, the world would be a much more productive place. You can be sure that the people who are unwilling to own up to their mistakes are the same ones who don't learn from those mistakes. And thus we have a never-ending cycle of denial and repeat.

I've started to see whole groups of people attempt to disguise responsibility as an entity unto itself. My pet peeve is the phrase, "Mistakes were made." As if the mistakes just formed out of mid-air with no human hand involved.

Speaking of that horrid phrase, two social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson look into how the brain is wired for self-justification in the book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Their observation is that we create fictions to absolve ourselves of any responsibility, "restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right-a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong."

Maybe we should all take a look at that book.

Do you find yourself justifying mistakes at work? Have you ever owned up a to a mistake and were you burned at the stake for it?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

98 comments
jemorris
jemorris

I applied to IBM in Austin, TX in '90 or '91 and even got called in to interview with HR, that in itself was amazing at that time because the job market was really bad, especially for new techs.

On the wall behind the interviewer was a plaque that had a list. The interviewer saw me looking intently at this list on the plaque and smiled, I think she told me that was their "creed" or something like that. There were maybe half a dozen items to this list, the top one was something about recognizing that everyone makes mistakes, learn from your own and move on or grow from it. I thought that was pretty cool.

I would have gotten the job there if I had already lived in Austin, but they had a policy about paying for moves and there was a freeze on that particular policy at that time. I told the interviewer I'd happily pay for my own move just let me have the job. She laughed and pointed out that they were sticklers about "policy"... Oh well.


bobc4012
bobc4012

Of course, repeating a mistake over and over does make you an idiot. There is living proof - our politicians from the top to the bottom. Also, those who keep electing the same ones. 

For whatever reason, I found most co-workers always looked to "pass the buck" onto someone else if they could. Of course, one reason was come evaluation time, management used it as a weapon to lower your rating (or at least not increase it). If you want honesty, you have to breed honesty from the top on down. Harder to do the higher up in the chain. One of the biggest games was hoping whoever was working on the piece yours was dependent was late enough to blame when you knew you weren't going to meet your date!


RMSx32767
RMSx32767

I never justified a "mistake" nor did I cover one up. As a matter of fact I once did something that adversely effected every user in the company. Quickly realizing what I had done I took corrective action and the problem, already reported to my boss and the systems group, disappeared. I knew there was no way of tracking the short term "hiccup" to me, or anyone else for that matter. Still, I told my boss what had happened so he and others did not waste time searching for the cause of the problem which disappeared as soon as it was reported. My boss asked me why I had done what I did, accepted my explanation and said "thanks for letting me know so we don't waste time, and please don't do that again."

gksmith2002
gksmith2002

Have you ever owned up a to a mistake and were you burned at the stake for it?

Yes. 

In interviews the question “what would you do if you made a mistake” comes up and the standard answer is “I would own up to it, notify my supervisor, and work to correct the problem.” I believe that and practice that if I make a mistake.

In a job several years ago I was monitoring UNIX servers. An alert would come up and I would search the knowledge base for the command to resolve the error. There were two similar errors that came up on a server at the same time. This was unusual and the first time it ever happened. I checked the knowledge base and with peers for what to do and was not getting any assistance. Instead of delaying and letting the problem sit there for an extended time (and possibly get disciplined for not meeting the SLA for acting on an alert), I thought logically and made a decision. The problem resolved but lingered a lot longer than it should have. I owned up to what happened, explained my actions, and paid the price by being put “on probation” again. There was at least one peer who later said he would have done the same thing.

kdm1958
kdm1958

In personal life and with work associates I trust, I live fully by the principles of being honest and admitting error.  It serves me well and is the way I want to live.  And, I am lucky that my office has such an environment.

Unfortunately, we live more than ever in a 'gotcha' culture.  How many times do you read or hear a story in the media about someone who made an honest but visible mistake, or maybe uttered a sound bite that sounds bad out of context, and based on sketchy information commenters and callers are demanding the person be fired, imprisoned, fined, impoverished, etc., immediately?  Of course if they grounded an ocean liner while showing off, crashed a state vehicle while drunk, etc., then such reactions make sense.  But many times it seems like people are too eager to play the role of Queen of Hearts--"Off with their heads!"--out of proportion to whatever happened.

There is basically an industry for producing scapegoats, fueled by enough eager consumers to make it profitable.  For anyone potentially in the public eye--such as any government employee--that reality fosters a culture of butt-covering which is sadly rational.

yattwood
yattwood

1989...I had just started as a DBA, working on an IMS system at an aerospace company. One weekend, I was trying to reorganize one of the production databases, and I messed up a step (prefix resolution or something) and I hosed it. I called my boss (who had been a DBA) - he came in and fixed it, and I watched, waiting for him to tell me I was fired.

I will _never_ forget what happened: He turned to me, said quietly: "Did you learn something?" I replied "Yes". He said: "That's all I need to know" - never said one word about it again - and I never made that mistake again. 

I would have crawled over glass for that man - he was one of the best bosses I ever had; he knew his stuff and he looked out for his people - he would not allow his staff to be dumped on in public; he would deal with you privately, if he needed to.  He also had a sense of humor; he was about 5'3" and I'm 6'2" - we'd joke about that all the time.  


Robynsveil
Robynsveil

 In my line of work, owning up to a mistake can mean a life (nursing). And yet, we have the same issues other industries have of people more concerned with how their skills are going to be perceived than what impact their mistake is going to have on a patient's care.

I for one am making sure that my colleagues *know* and that I *expect* that they have a look at what I'm doing, call my attention to something I might have missed without fear of "attitude" and that this should/could/needs-to be the norm. No one gets it right 100% of the time, and when you're dealing with lives - I work in post-op recovery... you sort-of can't screw up there, ever - a mistake avoided can be a life saved.

mark1408
mark1408

I'm blessed to work in an environment where I know it's safe to own up to mistakes. I write in the TR SMB blog and, ironically, the post that's stirred up the most comments I've ever had is one that starts, "Mistakes I made when...". Obviously people like to know what can go wrong and how to avoid it. 

Other than those in the article, I've done the odd thoughtless, stupid, should-have-known-better thing that inconveniences others - and thankfully I'm still here :-)

(The article is at http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/smb-technologist/the-three-mistakes-i-made-creating-a-hyper-v-virtual-machine/)

EnEm1
EnEm1

A fault is not a mistake. Mistaking a fault for a mistake is not your fault Toni. It's just a mistake you made based on the input data you received or the faulty logic you followed :).

In my estimate a fault is when you commit an act that's contrary to the positive, personal and philosophical values you hold. Deliberately misguiding somebody would be my fault. Unintentionally providing wrong directions to a motorist based on my erroneous knowledge of an area would be a mistake. 

The stigma attached to the phrase "I made a mistake" is of the same hue as the one attached to "I don't know". To the person uttering this phrase and especially to the one it's addressed to seems to carry the connotation "I am incapable of knowing". But on further analysis "I don't know" simply means I lack the knowledge on this particular subject or topic. And there's nothing wrong with that. Humans are not born omniscient. Unpredictable circumstances may have prevented him or her from acquiring that knowledge. But to the uninitiated blame gamers it translate to "I am incapable of knowing", two very, very different concepts.

If any of this sounds like an ancient language, then "Mea Maxima Culpa".

EnEm1
EnEm1

A fault is not a mistake. Mistaking a fault for a mistake is not your fault Toni. It's just a mistake you made based on the input data you received or the faulty logic you followed :).

In my estimate a fault is when you commit an act that's contrary to the positive, personal and philosophical values you hold. Deliberately misguiding somebody would be my fault. Unintentionally providing wrong directions to a motorist  based on my erroneous knowledge of an area would be a mistake. 

If any of this sounds like an ancient language, then "Mea Maxima Culpa".

THazlett
THazlett

It's not just the US that is obsessed with blame, I work in the UK and many companies while claiming not to have a blame culture revert straight to that when the brown stuff hits the fan. And couple this with back-stabby colleagues trying to climb the ladder and line managers who don't want their team to look poor then it can be a career limiting move being the instigator of a issue - all it does is make IT professionals play it safe and fill their 'Protect my butt' email folder with copious amounts of documentation before anything will get actioned.

Let's remember that we live in the real world.

Joey Indolos
Joey Indolos

Being able to admit fault depends both on your maturity and the maturity of the managers you report to.  When I was an insecure newbie, I was deathly afraid to admit error because I was so self-conscious that I thought everyone would notice and make such a big deal of it.  Little did I know that they were all thinking about their own errors.  Other comments have also pointed out that if you are in a company culture where management overreacts to mistakes, then it encourages you to hide mistakes.

As a mature veteran of the IT industry (almost 30 years now, in 10 different companies) I am now very secure with my self worth, and have no problems apologizing for mistakes.  I also try to find a solution first so that I can present it immediately after I point out the error.  Also, I am lucky now to be reporting to managers who see that trait as an asset.

jagans65
jagans65

Trial and error is how we learn. How many times do you think the Wright Brothers tried before they flew? You can be absolutely sure that the one that criticizes the person that makes a mistake is the one that sits back and never takes any risk whatsoever. The "Yes" Man, at the company meetings. I have said this a thousand times. If you don't do anything, you cant do anything wrong. Our congressmen and senators have this as their personal mantra.

Paul_Hardin
Paul_Hardin

"The truth about all of us is that we have infinite worth but finite competence." --Joseph Grenny, Coauthor of Crucial Conversations, etc. Fortunately, I work in an organization that understands this concept (Brigham Young University IT department). And I agree with the writer who indicated that without risk taking there is limited progress. And you can't take risks without making mistakes. While making mistakes doesn't feel good, the resultant scrutiny of what (not who) caused the mistake often leads to better processes, better documentation, better tools, and so forth. If seen this happen many times in the last 15 years.

jagans65
jagans65

No, No, No, you don't understand.  According to the Lawyers, I never make a mistake, it is always somebody else's fault, and everybody gets a trophy whether they win or lose, so you must be wrong. If I dont check the oil in my cars engine, and the engine seizes up, its not my fault, its the guys that make the engines fault. If I slip and fall on the ice because I wore leather soled shoes its not my fault, its the guy that owns the stores fault for not salting his sidewalk. If I get a shock while wearing wet socks running my electric drill, its the drill manufacturers fault.

If you don't believe me, just call We,Cheatum, and How they advertise every night on national TV.

dnelson56
dnelson56

So true.  How many times have I seen this happen.  However,it must be added that there are supervisors, managers and company owners who overreact in the extreme when mistakes are made thus making employees less willing to stand up and take responsibility.  We all must take the consequences of our actions, to be sure, but a little self control on the part of leadership is necessary to foster that willingness.

ddumont
ddumont

Organizations generally want to foster a culture of risk taking to further the company.  Mistakes are made in that culture and Management should recognize that.  Org Leadership and personal leadership share the same traits in my mind.

Leadership is:

1)Encouraging calculated risk taking

2) Being courageous(admit when things go wrong or it isn't working),

3) Correcting w/o stifling culture.  

The worst thing a company can do is to cultivate a  culture of "No Mistakes Allowed"

BigIve
BigIve

There is a time and place for everything - including being honest.  Mostly it is good to fess up and move on.  This is great if everybody is open and honest and accepts human frailty.  But other times you are working with lying, degenerate weasels who will use your honesty to make you look bad - they made the same mistakes and covered them up.  They then point out your mistake as your failure to anyone who will listen to make themselves look and feel better.  Worse, ignorant managers see two sets of people - one group that makes mistakes and tells about them and another group that don't seem to make mistakes.  This can have huge impact on getting future projects and even on staying in employment.

It is difficult to know when to be honest and when to duck for cover.  Sometimes it is best to be honest with yourself and trusted team members - and economical with the truth elsewhere.

peterg
peterg

People learn from mistakes. The problem arises when they keep repeating the sames ones.

tsadowski
tsadowski

Yes, mistakes get made. I find that people who cover them up, eventually get found out, and then fired for the cover ups. So why not just own up to it in the first place? I have found that if you own up to the mistake, identify the causes of what caused you to make the mistake, and create a plan to make sure it doesn't happen again, people are very understanding. If you keep making the same mistake, not so much, so it is important to learn from the mistakes as well.

Once, through a complete accident, I demolished a regional exchange server. I spent the whole night rebuilding it from a month old backup, because the backups weren't working. By 8:00am I had the server up and running again, however that region had lost 30 days worth of emails. Now granted this was back in 1999, when e-mail wasn't so important, but I owned up to the mistake, identified the cause, and detailed a plan to prevent it from happening again. Guess what? I didn't get fired, in fact they praised me for owning up to the mistake and being so responsible about getting it fixed and having a plan to prevent it from happening again!

jsargent
jsargent

Most people don't realize that nobody cares who made the mistake. People in power only care about getting it fixed and not making mistakes in the future.

jsargent
jsargent

A person who doesn't make mistakes doesn't do anything at all.

scotth
scotth

It would be great if this would apply to vendors as well.  When software doesn't work properly, the vendor says there is a bug they have to work out.  The original bug story arose because and actual bug, a moth, flew into the hardware and caused an electrical problem.

A "bug"?  It's not a bug, it's a programmer's error.  Sometimes as a result of poor programming, sometimes because the code wasn't tested properly and sometimes because no programmer can predict every single detail about the environment where the software will be installed.

Please own up to it and stop calling it a "bug".

RobertMoore12
RobertMoore12

The problem is too many don't want to accept responsibility for those very mistakes and keep making them. And our children are being taught to do the same thing in schools. Because no one ever loses in school or life if no one is to blame. WRONG!!!!!!!!!!

Nigel Dower
Nigel Dower

I know this applies to every human but I can't help think that it's aimed at one person in particular - Tony Abbott.

miked123456
miked123456

I've always said to anyone that works for me that you won't lose job for 99.99999% of the mistakes you make, you will lose your job 100% of the time when you try to cover up those mistakes. If you make a mistake that falls into the .00001% don't worry, you won't be able to hide it anyway.

tfbonline
tfbonline

Who needs to understand Spanish when there are so many online tools to help? (I do by the way, ....un poco ;o)).

I have always been one to stick up my paw when I make a mistake then look for solutions, or possibly the other way round.  I was sure I had established a understanding with my boss that I would admit to my mistakes but would not drop others in it for theirs.

So much for that idea, just got fired for something I didn't do, my boss says on the balance of probability he thinks I did do it.  GRRR!

Agree totally with Bruce - trained as a software engineer, the only time I didn't make any mistakes in my code was when I designed the thing properly before I started coding it. But who ever does that?

brucewalker
brucewalker

I'm a programmer/analyst.  Show me a programmer that doesn't make mistakes and I'll show you a programmer that's not writing very much code.

Ketk
Ketk

Hola,

No sé si entiendes español... pero te explico: Cuando un español o un italiano, pronuncia la expresión "mea culpa", es porque reconoce un error, un fallo, una equivocación, algo que ha hecho y que no es correcto.

Decir "mea culpa"  implica el reconocimiento de ese hecho poco o nada correcto por parte de la persona que lo pronucia.

Ese reconocimiento no significa que el que ha actuado de manera incorrecta, causando un daño o una molestia, sea un idiota necesariamente. Porque verás, hay tres clases de tontos en este mundo: los tontos, los idiotas y los imbéciles, y los he nombrado por orden de más listo a más tonto, siendo los imbéciles los más atontados.

Pero para acabar, he de añadir, que jamás verás a un individuo, catalogado como jefe o jefa, disculparse, pedir perdon, o entonar el "mea culpa" ni siquiera reconocer un error ante sus iguales o sus subordinados. ESO VA CONTRA LAS TECNICAS DE LIDERAZGO.

dogknees
dogknees

The dates don't match up here. The article was published 8/10/2013 and the comments are from 2010. Is someone re-posting old articles without telling us?

taedwards
taedwards

Owing up to mistakes is good for a current employee. However, what about the job seeker? No career coach has suggested that you put in resume or portfolio "Mistakes I Made, What I have Learned, and How I Solved It." Maybe it would weed out places where I do not want to work.

Englebert
Englebert

as I am having right now with a bank that cannot understand simple instructions. Understandably, everyone is allowed to make mistakes. However, there are some who are flippant, cavalier and apathetic if not downright dumb. It reminds me of the saying by Einstein " Two things are infinite. The universe and human stupidity " And I'm not so sure about the universe.

Marty the Borg
Marty the Borg

I have found that I learn best from my mistakes, so my goal is; To make as many mistakes as I can, as rapidly as possible, so as to learn the most, in the least amount of time.

dave the IT guy
dave the IT guy

I currently am a regional department of 1 person. But at our company headquarters, if someone screws up - they have the responsibility to bring in pastries the next day for the rest of the department. Because we are server techs - mistakes are usually obvious because of system downtime etc... But the lighthearted approach is helpful.

blackepyon01
blackepyon01

Very few humans can boast that they have perfect memory or don't make mistakes. Humans are inherently imperfect beings. Like a computer with faulty blocks in the RAM and bad sectors on the HDD, bits of data will dissapear or get written improperly. Human brains aren't perfect. Humans DO make mistakes. Calling people incompetent for their mistakes is completely illogical. However, humans are flawed, so even that reasoning won't apply everywhere. |{

mafergus
mafergus

It's always fun when you are in that environment. I always tried to explain to people that making a mistake isn't the problem, covering it up or not learning from it is. I honestly don't know which is worse, the person who wants to lynch someone for making a mistake or the person who covers up and tries to deflect all responsibility? Both are toxic in any normal work place. Another fun spin is the employee/manager who can't admit they are overloaded.

jemorris
jemorris

@gksmith2002 Just curious, did they give regular bonuses? and did a "probation" reduce or nullify any bonus at the end of quarter or year? I've seen that before. I've knew a place that handed out "marks" as they were called left & right and supervisors were encouraged to nit-pick on performance reviews to minimize year end bonuses as much as possible. It was later found out after some years that the supervisors got a percentage of the "not given bonuses". Seems like there was a big law suite over it but I don't know how that ever turned out.

bobc4012
bobc4012

@jagans65 BTW, our senators are congressmen. Congress comprises both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Unfortunately, the "lamestream" media will only distiguish depending upon which party controls the House! The average person tends to forget thier Civics and/or American History (if they teach it anymore) which discusses how our Republic was formed (note republic vs democracy). 

TRgscratch
TRgscratch

The corollary is an organization that says it "encourages risk taking". The proof is, how does that organization treat the individual who takes that risk and fails

nyssssa
nyssssa

@scotth "Bug" is a lot easier to say and type than "Programmer's error."  I'll continue to use "bug," thank you.

TRgscratch
TRgscratch

As a softwaee vendor, my reply is: what would prefer we call errors in the code that are found (by anyone) and we fix?

linux-user
linux-user

@dogknees I believe that it was a mistake that someone will explain shortly.  

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Be consistent at something more than stupid.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen moderator

We had a young troop attempt to cover a mistake by altering the tech manual. We booted him. Not for the mistake, for the cover-up.

ddumont
ddumont

@TRgscratch That is point 3.  Correcting w/o stifling culture.  Good point though.

jsargent
jsargent

@linux-user @dogknees This was answered on the 31st December 1899.

eylusion
eylusion

See as since I rarely if ever mess up when I do it is fairly amazing. I like to take pride in my mega screw up's. Sometimes it's harder to be wrong then it is right, no harm in that right?