Many employees prefer to keep their mistakes to themselves for fear of losing face when they know that confessing is better. But how do you do that? “Never blame others.”
From accidentally paying a bill twice to an email with language errors to the entire customer base. Every employee does something wrong from time to time. ‘And this affects our self-esteem,’ says Toon Taris, a professor at Utrecht University who specializes in the psychology of work. ‘We feel incompetent and fear for our career. That’s why most people keep their mouths shut. They hope no one notices their mistake when they know it’s right to confess it.’
Why is it good to be honest about things that go wrong? Companies don’t want everyone to make the same mistakes because no one says anything. In addition, the atmosphere in the team improves by being open about missteps, says Frank Deuring, author of the book SuperFailen (2022). ‘People think they are being laughed at, but colleagues often think it is brave. And it’s contagious, making it easier to recognize mistakes,” he says. ‘It also lifts. Annoying emotions such as guilt and shame disappear by talking about your failures.’ Enough reasons to go naked. How do you handle that?
Don’t put it off
Ignore the temptation to wait and see if your mistake is noticed at all and confess it as soon as possible, advises Taris. “Don’t wait for someone else to point it out, because if you hide one mistake, you make a second mistake. Then you will be seen as not having integrity.’
During that conversation with the boss or a colleague, it is good to show your emotions, adds Deuring. You can say you’re ashamed. And that you are disappointed that the company is losing money or incurring reputational damage because of your mistake. Explain how you will solve the problem or what you will do to minimize the consequences of your misstep. Deuring: ‘And never blame others, you have done something wrong.’
Explain what you have learned
Don’t just tell them what you’ll be doing differently from now on, but show it to your manager and colleagues – and maybe even customers. Preferably do this again after a few weeks, recommends Deuring. You probably want to put it behind you, but by coming back to it, you show that you didn’t make empty promises and learned something from it.
Also, be critical of your performance. Was your stupidity the result of haste or too much work pressure? There is something to be done about it. If you lack knowledge or insight, ask yourself whether it is smart to take a course. Taris: ‘And whether your job actually suits you.’
Leader: lower the threshold
The company culture also determines whether employees dare to admit mistakes. If there is a culture of reckoning, then no one likes to put on the penitent. Taris: ‘In such a case, it is not smart for yourself and your career to be vulnerable. But for the organisation, of course, because otherwise, colleagues will continue to make the same mistakes. And if you never speak up or are vulnerable, you contribute to a climate in which things remain unspoken.’
Managers must ensure that employees feel free to confess their mistakes. How? Research by Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, shows that employees feel safer when leaders make clear which mistakes have consequences and which do not, and what the consequences are for employees. Edmondson also advises managers to focus on what went wrong and not on who did it. The option to report a miss anonymously could help with that.
Deuring knows of companies that organize a ‘coffee-wrong’ moment or fuck-up drink once a month, where everyone takes turns sharing a blunder. ‘Such a fixed moment in the month lowers the threshold for acknowledging errors so that people start doing the same at other times.’