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?
Toni Bowers is the former 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.