My Bad, Your Bad? How to Talk About Mistakes So You Can Move on

by Jesse Lahey on September 28, 2015

Business leader explaining to his employees their tasksI’m not a big fan of assigning blame for a mistake or problem. I’d much rather focus on fixing the problem or finding a solution. As a leader, whenever a problem occurs on my team, I can usually drill down deep enough to find that I was responsible at some level.

For example, Aspendale produces an employee newsletter for a certain client, and in one issue we discovered a minor mistake after the newsletter had been printed — one of the article headlines was worded differently than had been listed in the table of contents. This mistake would have been easily caught if only our proofreader had followed our standard proofreading checklist, which includes comparing every headline with the table of contents.

It would have been easy to blame the proofreader. Or I could have blamed the project manager, who assigned the task to the proofreader without reminding him to use the checklist. Instead, I realized the mistake was ultimately my fault. As the leader, I should have been more consistent in reminding our team that quality, while not as “sexy” as creativity, is just as vital to the credibility and impact of our communications.

So I used the “I” Power Pronoun to acknowledge my contribution toward the mistake and then moved our team toward improving our processes to avoid future mistakes.

This is not to say that I don’t hold people accountable. The typo ultimately was my fault for not making sure that everyone was aware of our standard proofreading process and the importance of using it. So I will do a better job of that going forward. But I don’t have patience for repeat mistakes. I try to see every mistake or failure as an opportunity to learn lessons, but I expect people on our team to learn the lessons and not repeat the mistakes.

Mea Máxima Culpa

Sometimes it can be emotionally difficult to admit you’re wrong. For example, you may discover you were wrong after you had been belligerently insisting you were right; in other words, you were a jerk about it! Also, it can be hardest to apologize to the people we care about the most.

My wife Erin and I have discovered a private code that helps in those difficult moments with each other. In those occasions (which I wish I could say are very rare) when it’s difficult for me to admit I was wrong, I can quote this line from the oh-so-highbrow movie Happy Gilmore:

I’m stupid. You’re smart. I was wrong. You were right. You’re the best. I’m the worst. You’re very good-looking. I’m not attractive.

This is a private signal between us that I’m trying to make up with her, but that I’m uncomfortable and need her to cut me some slack. It almost never fails to make us both laugh, and to move us beyond a painful moment.

Similarly, it may help make difficult apologies easier if you can find a way to approach it that signals humility, and when appropriate, lightens the tension with humor. Just make sure your listener clearly understands that you take ownership for the blame; to accomplish that, you’ll probably need to use the “I” Power Pronoun.

The Best Time for “You”

Pronouns are about ownership. We’ve talked about the importance of using “I” language to show the leader’s ownership of feelings and pablo (1)mistakes. But are there times when “you” is appropriate?

Yes, and probably the best time to think and speak in terms of “you” is when assigning credit for a success. When giving recognition to a person or team for a win, it is important to be very concrete and clear about what they did that the rest of us can learn from.

As with mistakes or failures, a success usually provides lessons to learn: How can we duplicate or build on this success? “The client was so thrilled with the newsletter that he sent copies to a dozen people,” I recently told the project team. “You guys did a great job of listening to his input and finding a creative way to put more of his team’s personality into it.”

Always think first in terms of “I” whenever someone needs to accept blame. Save “you” for opportunities to share credit for success.

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

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