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Made a huge mistake at work on accident. How do I handle this?
January 16, 2013 12:16 PM   Subscribe

I made an honest error at work, and people are upset (or more) at me. How do I balance taking responsibility and standing up for myself?

Luckily, there were no serious consequences to this particular event, but that was just luck. Everyone knows I made the initial mistake that could've had more serious consequences, and my boss seems pretty upset because had we not been lucky, our entire team could've been in trouble. We are going to discuss this and I would like advice on how to handle myself.

I do take responsibility for what I've done, but it was an honest error. There was no one to check my work. I feel that though it was my fault, the consequences of one person's error needn't been so serious if there had been proper checks in place. I'm worried that my own neck is on the line, and would like to know how to properly handle myself. How do I balance taking responsibility for something I did versus standing up for myself?

Also, just for background, my boss already believes I don't care enough (which is untrue), which exacerbates the situation. There have been times I've been not a model employee (late to work, slow progress due to some health issues) and my boss seems to pick up on any situation when I slip, though he's been relatively understanding so far.
posted by ribboncake to Work & Money (48 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
You sound like you're trying to justify it or say it wasn't your fault. This attitude isn't going to help you when you talk to your boss. Your approach should be "I want to discuss ideas I've had for preventing such an error from occurring again." If nobody checks your work, are you double checking before turning it in? That's one way.

Basically, you take responsibility for what you can do to do your job better and prevent something like this happening again. If there's a hole in the system, take responsibility for what you can do that's within your job's capacity that will help fill the hole.
posted by DoubleLune at 12:20 PM on January 16, 2013 [17 favorites]


Whenever I make a mistake at work, I put a plan into place so that I do not make that mistake again. So, when I discuss with my boss, I can say "I did make x mistake. In the future, I will do y and z to make sure it does not happen again." I agree with DoubleLune - if no one else is checking your work, you need to double check it, so you know it's right.
posted by needlegrrl at 12:21 PM on January 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


Standing up for yourself doesn't really fit into this equation - you made a mistake, the absolute best you can do is to acknowledge it and take full responsibility. If someone calls you a name, then you tell them not to speak to you that way. It's a positive, in a way - if you don't "stand up for yourself" but instead take responsibility, your boss will know that you care enough.
posted by facetious at 12:22 PM on January 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


Bosses do not care about feelings. You can feel bad, you can feel nothing, you can feel proud, you can feel whatever you want. This is not a meeting for you to show contrition. What bosses do care about is results. In this case, they want to hear what steps you are taking so that this never happens again. And I mean concrete steps. If you need to sit down with your boss to come up with a system of checks to keep this from happening, now is the perfect time. If you boss is the sort to expect you to take initiative (NB: all bosses expect you to take initiative, but sometimes this kind of stuff needs inside knowledge from above before you can even start), then come up with a bunch of checks and run it by them.
posted by griphus at 12:22 PM on January 16, 2013 [11 favorites]


there are probably people in your office who are on time/on schedule, might resent some of the understanding you're been given thus far, and will now use this mistake as a excuse to pile on. the best way to avoid that in the future is to control what you can so mistakes look like an anomaly instead of part of a pattern. i think you might just have to take your lumps, suggest some checks and balances, and get yourself right as far as attendance and performance goes.
posted by nadawi at 12:23 PM on January 16, 2013


Also, yeah, I am not quite sure what it is you would be standing up for yourself about. Can you clarify?
posted by griphus at 12:24 PM on January 16, 2013


What was the accident that your mistake caused? I hope no one was hurt.

You say that you "take responsibility" but then say this happened because "no one checked my work". That is not taking responsibility because you are blaming the fact that no one detected your error. If you complain to your boss that no one checked your work, your day is going to get worse.

The way you take responsibility is to take your lumps, as nadawi put it. Given the past history you describe, the lumps might be pretty bad. Be prepared for that.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:28 PM on January 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's your boss' job to pick up on situations when you slip. You look more responsible and responsive when you let him help you and support you and try to get beyond and through places where you are likely to slip.

To prove that you care to your co-workers it's really very contextual. When I was in a similar situation with one very competent but skeptical co-worker, I upped my game and reduced my mistakes, I apologized when I made mistakes but didn't dwell on them, just moved on, and waited for him to make a mistake. And when he did I was easy on him but I also recommended what needlegrrl is talking about: plans for avoiding making the mistake at all, or for minimizing if/when the mistake(s) happen again.

There's always ways to propose business process management (BPM) types of approaches to keeping mistakes to a minimum and keeping them from having a far ranging impact if they do happen:
- Checklists
- Procedure manuals
- Call trees and other escalation processes
- Automation (to report on effects of mistakes and to quickly remediate them)
- etc.

There's always something you can do to demonstrate that you do care and you do want to avoid screwing up in the future.
posted by kalessin at 12:29 PM on January 16, 2013


"While I was kicking myself over making this stupid mistake last night, I thought of some ways that we can decrease the possibility of someone making this same mistake in the future."
posted by Etrigan at 12:30 PM on January 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


Standing up for yourself means accepting responsibility, coming up with a solution to prevent similar mistakes and then not making the mistake again.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:32 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Have this discussion in person not via email.
posted by murfed13 at 12:33 PM on January 16, 2013 [14 favorites]


From both a practical and a face-saving standpoint, one of the best things you can do is to come up with a way to prevent this sort of error from happening again. No proper checks? Suggest a way to put those checks in place - without putting significantly more work or responsibility on your teammates. If you do this, take initiative, be thorough, and follow through. Anyone can bellyache about the lack of a QA process, but a responsible person will step up and create one.

Everyone messes up occasionally, sometimes monumentally. People are more likely to forgive the conscientious, detail-oriented employee who screws up than the poky, seemingly-apathetic one. Step up your professionalism and you won't be pigeonholed as a potential liability.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:38 PM on January 16, 2013


Is the is the same job you wrote about in August? Because if it is, you need to do everything in your power to convince your boss and your colleagues that you take this error-event extremely seriously, and that you have a plan to make sure it never happens again. Can you get a colleague to check your work for you? Can you get a friend to do so, assuming there's no confidentiality issues.
Messing up is not as big a problem as failing to learn from the mistake and not being seen as contrite and apologetic.

If this is a new job--well, go and sin no more--but make sure that you present yourself as contrite and determined to not make this same mistake again.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:40 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, never, ever offer excuses. The answer to questions like "why did this happen?" is "because I missed Section 7 of form 9B," and not "because I wasn't feeling well and my head was hurting and things were just so busy and..." The answer to any followup questions (i.e. "why did you miss Section 7?") is "because we don't have any checks in place, so I came up with a few ideas..."
posted by griphus at 12:41 PM on January 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


I don't know, this is going to sound harsh, but it sounds like you need to step up your game. The fact that you've already proven to be a less than stellar employee will not help your case.

"Also, just for background, my boss already believes I don't care enough (which is untrue), which exacerbates the situation" honestly your caring does not reconcile the fact that you are late to work and keep messing up. From bosses perspective if you did truly care you would care enough to be on time and pay attention.

By the way whenever you say but ("I do take responsibility for what I've done, but it was an honest error.") all anyone hears it what you are saying AFTER the but, e.g. excuses and not taking responsibility.
posted by seesom at 12:45 PM on January 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


Actions speak louder than words.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:50 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I do take responsibility for what I've done, but it was an honest error.

If you say this when talking to your boss, reverse it. "It was an honest mistake, but I take full responsibility for it. It was my mistake and I made it." Also note the presence of the word and. Never say "It was an honest mistake, but..."

There was no one to check my work. I feel that though it was my fault, the consequences of one person's error needn't been so serious if there had been proper checks in place.

I'm gonna give you some advice: Holy hell, never say this. Stop even thinking it. Your neck may be a little bit on the line, but if you walk into this meeting with your boss and say that this happened because there was no one to check your work for you, you'll be telling your boss that your employment requires assigning someone to go over all your work - in other words, that your department will need to devote time and energy to babysitting you.

The only way that could possibly end well is if having your work double-checked is standard for every one of your peers, and yours has not been undergoing that scrutiny. Otherwise, no.

I'm worried that my own neck is on the line, and would like to know how to properly handle myself. How do I balance taking responsibility for something I did versus standing up for myself?

Put aside ego, put aside the notion of standing up for yourself. You fucked up. Your boss knows you fucked up. When you sit down at this meeting, your boss is going to want to know two things:

1. What happened
2. What you are doing (not what you will do, but what you are doing and will continue to do) to make sure it won't happen again

When you explain what happened, you need to avoid trying to mitigate it. Don't say it happened because there were no checks in place (again, unless this is standard for your workplace). Don't try to come up with excuses. The answer will probably be uncomfortable - you kind of spaced out at the moment, you forgot to carry the two, whatever - because it is entirely on you. Taking responsibility for your mistakes is the only way to go, and will help you a lot.

For part two: Have a concrete plan and be prepared to show how it will work. If you don't actually have a plan, come up with one right now. This is important. Don't just say you'll try harder in the future, or promise it won't happen again. Be prepared to explain how you know it won't happen again.

After the meeting, stick to the plan. Eventually your boss will be satisfied that it won't, in fact, happen again.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:51 PM on January 16, 2013 [15 favorites]


Thanks for the responses so far, and I will definitely take them to heart. I guess I'm scared of the situation that I am fired for this.
posted by ribboncake at 12:52 PM on January 16, 2013


No matter what you decide to say or do about this situation, make sure that all conversations regarding this error are made in person and not via email. While it is always important to have a paper trail in case someone ELSE has made an error, it is never in your best interest to admit to errors you made yourself in an email chain.

Hypocritical and tricksy, but it's nevertheless a good idea.
posted by elizardbits at 12:56 PM on January 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


from your history, it sounds like things have been bad for a while. you might lose your job. the important thing is that's not the end of the world. lots of people get fired (and lots of people get fired for errors due to poor managed mental health issues). if you get fired, it's just another lesson learned. your anxiety about your job probably worsens your performance, but i bet you know that. take it as it comes and keep moving forward whatever the outcome. and, honestly, sometimes getting fired is a blessing - it allows you to seek a clean slate, to shake things up, to rejigger your brainspace.
posted by nadawi at 1:04 PM on January 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's good to know that some of what I am thinking can be construed as looking for excuses, and I will definitely avoid saying them.

Ok, I know I'm going to get a lot of criticiscm for this, and OF COURSE I would never say this to anyone, but I'm curious. If you were looking at this situation objectively, what would you think? Would you think that if one person's slip-up can bring down the entire team, the team is mismanaged, or is the onus solely on the person who made the mistake? What if there was a check in place and it was not caught? I know you're going to say that I'm not taking responsibility and looking for excuses. Perhaps that's the case. But I am genuinely curious as well, not just for my own current situation.
posted by ribboncake at 1:13 PM on January 16, 2013


Don't use the phrase "It was an honest mistake..."

Try to think of a checklist solution for preventing the mistake from happening again.

I'm not sure it would be a good idea to suggest that the boss ought to assign someone to check your work. That sort of tactic is for pilots and astronaughts and such.
posted by mule98J at 1:17 PM on January 16, 2013


Forget the team, if I screw up at work, I could seriously ruin someone's life. Sometimes, it's all on you. It's scary, but you can't really advance in a job without taking on responsibility.
posted by murfed13 at 1:20 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you were looking at this situation objectively, what would you think? Would you think that if one person's slip-up can bring down the entire team, the team is mismanaged, or is the onus solely on the person who made the mistake?

Adults are given responsibilities at work and expected to deliver. If you have learned you cannot succeed in a position without considerable oversight, the responsible thing is to seek out a position with less responsibility.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:25 PM on January 16, 2013 [7 favorites]


I think you need to really openly acknowledge how close this came to disaster, how gutted you feel about that and that you truly realise that it would have been your fault if that had happened.... and that you haven't stopped trying to find ways of ensuring that it never happens again. Not to you, and not to anyone else.

I once worked in a team that had a sign on the wall that said, "Learn from the mistakes of others, there is not enough time in the world to only learn from your own". I liked that. I think it's appropriate for you and your team. Tell them that you want your spectacular cockup to help everyone. It's a teaching moment possum.

Don't beat yourself up, but take adult levels of responsibility.

A sincere mea culpa is what grown ups do. Go on, do it. No buts.
posted by taff at 1:26 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you were looking at this situation objectively, what would you think?

my friend, you are looking at this all wrong. here's how it works:

more responsibility = more money + more hugs.

you're acting like

more responsibility = more blame + more shame.

totally bass-ackwards. you gotta look at your responsibilities as positives, they're exactly what make you a kick-ass person.
posted by facetious at 1:31 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you were looking at this situation objectively, what would you think?

I mean, honestly? I would think that your boss is terrible because he gave you, who he already feels is irresponsible and doesn't care about your job, a critical task on the team. So yeah, okay if it makes you feel better then I do think your boss dropped the management ball here.

But if I was your boss? You'd be fired now because I sure wouldn't want anyone to think I'm coddling an official ball-dropper any longer.
posted by marylynn at 1:39 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


you can't look at this as a single thing that happened. your history matters. you might believe your history gives you a pass because there were good or explainable reasons for previous problems, or that they're not related because one is your job and the other is your attendance, but your boss and coworkers are looking at the whole of your performance. if you had never missed a deadline and never came in late, there would likely be less scrutiny on a mistake you made, no matter how potentially catastrophic the outcome could have been.
posted by nadawi at 1:48 PM on January 16, 2013


Would you think that if one person's slip-up can bring down the entire team, the team is mismanaged, or is the onus solely on the person who made the mistake?

It depends. Here is a real-life example from my world:

About a year ago, I had a case where opposing counsel and I agreed to revisions of a proposed order on a dispositive issue that I had prepared. I emailed the revised order to my secretary and asked her to forward it to the judge for signature. She didn't do that. Instead, she forwarded my original order, without any of opposing counsel's revisions, to the judge. She did this by going into our document management system and pulling up the old order instead of simply submitting the one I emailed to her.

The way I found out was the opposing counsel lighting up my phone as soon as the judge entered the order, wanting to know what kind of stunt I was trying to pull. I was able to calm down the opposing lawyer after explaining that my secretary had disobeyed. We got the revised order to the judge and since we had an understanding judge in state court, no harm was done. It could have been worse. I could have been sanctioned. My firm could have been sanctioned. I don't want to imagine what would have happened in federal court.

So to answer your question, yes, one person's mistake can bring down a whole lot of serious trouble even if there isn't a management problem. The only way this could have been avoided would be if I had stood behind her and watched her submit the order to the court. If I have to do that, I don't need a secretary.

In case you wondered, that secretary is no longer here. Not because of this incident (although that would have been enough) but because of several incidents like that. I would have fired her sooner but sharing secretaries means we don't get to make those decisions unilaterally.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:51 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


So yeah, okay if it makes you feel better then I do think your boss dropped the management ball here.

No, it does not make me feel better, and no need to be rude about it. Like I said, I'm asking just because I'm curious; I'm curious if I'm ever in this situation again but in another position.

And oh yes, given my history, I absolutely should be fired, or I should have resigned, probably awhile ago. But does that mean I'm not going to continue to act in my best interest, and not try to make the situation as un-horrible for me as possible? No, I will do everything I can to save my own neck.
posted by ribboncake at 1:57 PM on January 16, 2013


At a first meeting, I would shortly explain that it was an error and tell everyone that I'm apologizing for the trouble, and that I'm prepared for criticism - and that I would prefer to take notes and not have to defend myself.
Then I would think hard on what I heard at that meeting, re-read and ponder my notes for two days, and then do one of the following:

1) Arrange another short meeting where I'd explain in more detail what happened, why it happened, apologize again and/or explain ways to improve my performance/routine so this mistake isn't likely going to happen again, and finally perhaps point out what could be done on a structural level to double-check crucial procedures so it's not gonna happen again. In other words, make my criticism smallest possible and constructive.

OR

2) Decide that this job isn't for me and start searching for another one. In that case it is enough to apologize randomly and go on working as long as needed.
posted by Namlit at 2:03 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ok, I know I'm going to get a lot of criticiscm for this, and OF COURSE I would never say this to anyone, but I'm curious. If you were looking at this situation objectively, what would you think? Would you think that if one person's slip-up can bring down the entire team, the team is mismanaged, or is the onus solely on the person who made the mistake? What if there was a check in place and it was not caught? I know you're going to say that I'm not taking responsibility and looking for excuses. Perhaps that's the case. But I am genuinely curious as well, not just for my own current situation.

There is no way to answer this without a clearer understanding of what the slip-up was, what the stakes here are, and what constitutes "bringing down the entire team." Could you please (in a way that does not give identifying info) provide as many specifics as possible?

Mostly it sounds like you're being given a responsibility that you probably should not have been given. But your boss weighed the pros and cons of this and decided that the task was best given to you. There are points in any career at which you run the risk bungling a task will at least make things very shitty for your teammates. This possibility - or the actual occurrence - does not mean the team is being mismanaged.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 2:05 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think, if you want to save your own neck, do what's best to do when a cop pulls you over for speeding. Be humble and contrite and respectful. Don't point out how everybody else was speeding or the sign wasn't big enough. And avoid saying "honest mistake", "huge mistake" is much better. Even big mistakes are assumed to be honest. Show your honesty in suggesting at least one way this mistake could be avoided in future. Even if it's going to be someone else doing that job. Take the ticket. Thank the officer.
posted by tomboko at 2:06 PM on January 16, 2013


I've been in similar situations before, incidentally. And one of the things that's helped me avoid it is learning the difference between taking your job seriously and taking it personally. Feeling guilty and ashamed, worrying if your coworkers are angry at you, regularly fearing termination - these are signs that you're taking your job personally. They're understandable reactions, but they don't make you do your job any better. Taking your job seriously means you are invested in getting your work done, regardless of your feelings. It's the difference between "Oh my god I made a terrible mistake" and "I have a plan to make sure this doesn't happen again."

It might help you to abandon the idea of proving that you "care." Instead, prove that you can deliver.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:06 PM on January 16, 2013 [23 favorites]


If you see something that needs fixing in your workplace (oversight, review, sign-off), they *you* should be the one to suggest a better way. It sounds like you knew this was a problem. Maybe, for whatever reason, your boss never thought about how one mistake made by one person could cause trouble for the entire team. But you did. Why didn't you say anything, propose a solution, BEFORE the mistake that rocked the world?

Agree with everyone else. "I made a mistake. Here is what I'm doing to make sure it never happens again..." It really is as simple as that.

Every single person on my team has made one of these mistakes over the years. It's not career-ending or even (necessarily) job-ending and often leads to better practices and innovation.
posted by valeries at 2:18 PM on January 16, 2013


How do I balance taking responsibility for something I did versus standing up for myself?

This is a false dichotomy; counterintuitively these are actually the same thing. Standing up for yourself means that you believe a person who made this error - you - is not a lost cause and can be a good contributor.

Tell your boss how you're gonna fix this issue from happening again, and set up a system that puts the majority of work on you and share it with them. Good luck.
posted by smoke at 2:25 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


In the past, if I feel I've screwed something up, I acknowledge responsibility and outline a plan or steps that I will take to make sure the same situation does not occur. If it means creating a checklist, having someone else check my work, or simply being more alert the next time, then I state that to my manager and proceed accordingly.

Everyone makes some mistakes, but it is how you react to them that counts.
posted by mikeh at 2:30 PM on January 16, 2013


The truth is that if a team and boss allow an individual to screw something up that affects the entire team, it's a shared responsibility between the individual, the boss and the team.

It sounds like your team doesn't like you and that your boss is not competent to keep you from screwing up. This sucks and what you do if you are a responsible working adult is you take responsibility and fix it (by taking the hit for screwing it up, coming up with a plan to fix it in the future and getting your team and your boss to sign up for following the plan).

Set up checkpoints in the process so you can catch a failure before it blossoms into a screwup.

Now that the issue is fixed, monitor and refine the process you came up with to fix it. Get your team and boss involved too. Turn your failure into success by taking the initiative to fix what you screwed up and by preventing your team and your boss from ever looking bad again.

This is how high potential employees behave in just about every competent office I've ever worked at.

If there as an inbuilt check in existing process that was skipped or missed that still allowed you to screw up then the existing process obviously needs fixing. Competent bosses usually give the individual or team a free retry if a fix is obvious and it's clearly the process that's broken.

Or, you could avoid all this responsibility and get another job with either better processes or lower standards.
posted by kalessin at 2:41 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


The kind of work I do, it's always rushed and it's always public and there's no formal process of review for my work even though that's standard practice in my field. Whenever I have the slightest concern about errors/oversights in my final product I always ask someone else to look at it. My boss, someone on my team, an admin on another team, any fresh eyes. it's important to set up informal processes where formal processess are inadequate. That won't help w/your immediate problem (you've gotten good advice already) but keep it on mind for the future.
posted by headnsouth at 4:49 PM on January 16, 2013


It is of a different industry and focus, but have you ever heard of 8D Eight disciplines problem solving?

Take a look at any of the iterations of it on the web. Apply the method to yourself and it should make you provide steps to clear up any leftover damage, deal with current damage and prepare to and avoid future damage in a verifiable way.

Note the method doesn't ask anybody to be fired. It asks for answers and reassurance that the mistake won't happen again.
posted by Bodrik at 5:18 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Does that mean I'm not going to continue to act in my best interest, and not try to make the situation as un-horrible for me as possible?
Everything about this question and your follow ups suggest that you are not acting in your own best interest and that you are likely going to make this whole thing worse if you don't stop focusing on shit that doesn't matter. I say this from the perspective of someone who has sat on both sides of the table with this, so I don't mean this unkindly, but you need a better plan that excuses, explanations, and redirections.
posted by sm1tten at 5:40 PM on January 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


"I apologize for the headaches this has caused everyone. I do not want to allow a mistake like this to put all our hard work in jeopardy, ever again. So this is my plan to make sure I won't make a similar mistake in the future." Then you tell them your plan (you will create a checklist; you will double-check your work; you will run a test; whatever). It may help to have a printout of the plan that you can pass out to people (this shows both that you really thought about your plan, and intend to be held to it). And then you say, "I'd really appreciate all of your ideas on how to build in more failsafes to minimize the risk of one mistake derailing our project." And then you listen.

Make sure you say "I apologize" and not "I'm sorry." Sorry is just an emotion, a state of being. Apologize is a verb. It means you're actively taking responsibility, and actively trying to make things right.
posted by BlueJae at 6:00 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't want to pile on, because it does sound like you are having a hard time, but you don't just need to prove to your boss that you are not going to screw up again, but to all of your coworkers because:

If you were looking at this situation objectively, what would you think? Would you think that if one person's slip-up can bring down the entire team, the team is mismanaged, or is the onus solely on the person who made the mistake?

I've been in jobs that required a considerable amount of dependence on other people's work, and when someone I work with makes a big enough error that it might affect my employment, that person stops being a coworker and starts being an enemy. I go behind them to double check their work, I actively manage their performance on tasks we share, and I express and document my concerns to our managers if it continues.

So whatever steps you take to analyze and correct the gaps that have caused this issue, you need to make sure that your coworkers are aware of your work to fix the impact and that your solution does not make more work for them, as Metroid Baby said above. They are affected, too, and they need to know they can trust you.

I wouldn't put anything in writing, but I'd apologize to everyone who may have been impacted. It doesn't have to be a big production, but acknowledging the error and telling them the steps you're taking to ensure that it doesn't happen again will be critical in rebuilding trust.
posted by winna at 6:13 PM on January 16, 2013


So yeah, professionally I would be contrite, forthcoming and proactive as others have mentioned.

I could be wrong, but it sort of sounds to me like the emotional component to this may have less to do with your boss/co-workers and more to do with how you're thinking about and treating yourself. In that sense, I think the way you should "stand up for yourself" is to remain confident that this mistake doesn't mean you are a bad or unworthy person, and to firmly commit to fixing the mistake, taking practical steps to make sure it doesn't happen again, and then forgiving yourself and moving on, instead of getting stuck in a loop of self-flagellation (easier said than done, of course, but I think also worth any effort you can muster). Best of luck.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:32 PM on January 16, 2013


Don't fight the facts.

You made a mistake, it had consequences, the consequences could have been worse, and in addition to simple, personal due diligence, there may be ways to mitigate the potential for you or anyone else making a similar mistake in the future, so it is worthwhile to consider and suggest them, provided you can do so succinctly and then drop it. These are facts.

Fight the fiction.

You're a terrible person, you're incompetent, and you'll never be able to do a good job. You did it on purpose, or through an act so negligent that it might be considered sabotage. This is fiction.

So, admit the facts, take ownership of your role and how you personally will change in the future, and make a few constructive suggestions on how it might be caught earlier and disarmed if you or anyone else ever makes the same mistake again.

And, if someone accuses you of things such as I described as fiction above, say "now wait, I'm not comfortable with that description of what happened. We are talking about an unfortunate mistake, not an act of gross or willful negligence."
posted by davejay at 7:40 PM on January 16, 2013


Would you think that if one person's slip-up can bring down the entire team, the team is mismanaged, or is the onus solely on the person who made the mistake?

In medicine, we often work in team situations where one person's slip-up can bring down the whole team. A doctor, a couple of nurses, a tech, a pharmacist can all be working together on a cardiac arrest patient. There are many opportunities for error that any one of these people can commit that could compromise the care of the patient and potentially result in their death. That fact does not mean that the team is mismanaged, the mismanagement comes in related to how errors are prevented and how they are addressed by the organization.

The way we deal with this fact is to use something called a morbidity and mortality review. Bear with me here because I assume you are not in medicine, but the principles are valuable to any team situation. In an M&M review, we first look at the facts of the case and what exactly occurred.

We break down the error that occurred into categories (usually an error may cross multiple categories or multiple errors occurred, if you look closely enough at a situation):
- skill-based error
- cognitive error
- system error
etc.
And then each of these items is addressed - there are ways in which cognitive errors can be prevented and/or minimized, even though these are basically always what would be called "honest mistakes". Most of these methods involve changing thought processes, setting up reminders, etc. As you point out, one good way to address error is to build checks into the system. So when a doctor orders a medicine, the nurse repeats it back to him or her for confirmation, and then the pharmacist finally checks it as they fill the order.

In a proactive and healthy workplace environment, mistakes are looked at as learning opportunities and can be discussed openly without fear of retribution or blame. In many cases, errors can be traced back to system issues, which is why blaming individuals is not usually productive. Humans are not perfect and we make errors, the question is how to build a system that minimizes them.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:14 PM on January 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


No, I will do everything I can to save my own neck.

This is the problem, in a nutshell.

First, your neck is not on the line here, except figuratively. You may get fired, but that won't kill you. If you do get fired, you can rise above it, and become a better person, a person to whom this sort of thing will be far less likely to happen.

You are putting your own short-term interests ahead of the long-term interests of your team. It just doesn't work that way. If you consent to join a team, for a paycheck or any other reason, you make a compact with the other members of the team. You commit to putting the team's long-term interests first--because you understand and acknowledge that the team's interests are your interests--the better the team does, the better you do. If that's not the case, then just do the adult thing and move on to a better team.

If your discussion with your boss isn't driven on your side by a sincere desire to see the team succeed, even at the expense of your own short-term interests, then you will be having these discussions a lot in the future.

If you have some moral problem with the team's raison d'etre, then it behooves you to either suck it up and play the game until you can afford to walk away, or walk away now and find more congenial employment.

If you think this is advising you to ignore your own interests in favor of the team's, it's not. It's pointing out to you that you cannot succeed in the world without belonging to a team/tribe/collective, and your own interests are best served by learning the virtues of cooperation and enthusiastic participation.
posted by bricoleur at 9:54 PM on January 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


With your followup:

Imagine a person sleeping on an air mattress which has a slow leak. Several things can happen... For example, a) they can get up, run the air pump, and have an inflated mattress, but as soon as they lay back down again it starts leaking, and in a few hours they'll be sleeping on the floor. At which point they can repeat a) until either b) they patch the leak so that the mattress holds air, or c) (beyond their control) the leak rips further so that the mattress will never hold air.

Clearly with the air mattress the thing to do is b) as soon as possible, so that you can stop waking up every few hours to do a) and also so that you can avoid the chance of c).

In your case:

a) Minimize short term impact. Take whatever actions necessary to stand up for yourself and avoid the blame right now. There's a decent chance that you can get away with this, if you convince people that confronting you about this mistake is not worth the fuss--but their opinion of you will likely sink.
b) Minimize long term impact. Honestly, this probably involves switching jobs sooner rather than later. It is very difficult to dig out of the social pit that you're in. Before that happens, a lot of people have given you good advice above about how to gracefully accept blame and move on.
c) Beyond your control, your boss eventually loses patience and fires you.

You seem to be repeatedly choosing option a) with constant fear of c). You should really give b) some consideration.

(On a side note: There are lots and lots of industries where a disastrous mistake can be made by a single person. Things like stock trading spring to mind, where every entry is important and there are too many of them to have a second person read every one are particularly prone to fat finger errors. Even in day to day life, only one person drives the car. We try to put as many checks in as possible, like rumble strips along the edge of the road, but often the first errors are the ones that inspire the checks and it sounds like that's you.)
posted by anaelith at 3:52 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


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