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Mastering the Fine Art of the “I screwed up” Statement

The longer you work, sooner or later it’s going to happen to you: the major mess-up. You did something that was the result of perhaps not quite paying attention, missing a major detail, skipping a step in a work process to beat a deadline, or figuring that it wouldn’t really make that much difference if you just relied on someone else’s information rather than verifying it for yourself. The result: a classic screw up, the kind that’s going to be embarrassing at best, send your boss through the roof at worst.

It’s happened to all of us who’ve spent any time in the workplace, and after being read the riot act several times, you realize that the best way – in fact, the only way – to handle this type of career crisis is head-on. As soon as you realize you’ve made a mistake that may have an impact on the company, you want to pull together the following information, and be prepared to lay it out for your boss:

  1. Identify what the mistake was, and the potential damage that did or may result from the mistake.
  2. Identify what steps you can take or have taken to remedy the situation. (Your boss may have different or additional actions steps for you to take, but it helps if you’ve already tried to come up with some solutions.)
  3. Identify what happened to cause the mistake (focus on the relevant process malfunction or missed step; you don’t need to tell your boss that you missed something because you stayed up all night playing Texas hold’em with your friends and were suffering from major sleep deprivation).
  4. Describe what steps you will take in the future to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again (again, focus on the process – how you will double check the key information, verify that all steps have been completed, etc. No need to mention your pledge to avoid playing cards til 4:00am on a weeknight in the future….)

Your goals in mastering your “I screwed up” statement are to make it clear to your boss that you know you messed up, and you intend to take responsibility for it (thus building your boss’s confidence in your honesty and reliability). Also, you want to make sure that you’re the one delivering this information rather than the woman three cubicles down who’s got it in for you.

Bottom line:

  • Never let your boss learn of your screw-up from anyone other than you.
  • Never try to hide information about a mistake; know that it will almost always surface, and in the worst ways at the worst possible time.
  • Never let your boss get blindsided by something you did and concealed from him/her; it makes bosses look bad, and they’ll never forgive you for it – or trust you again.

So start rehearsing your speech now: “Boss, do you have a moment? I need to tell you about a situation that came up and how I’d like to handle it if this meets with your approval….”

About the Author

Acclaimed Career Coach, Kim Dority is a frequent presenter for Bryant & Stratton College Online. Dority is an information specialist, consultant, career coach, published author and adjunct professor at the University of Denver in Colorado. She has written extensively on career development for students and new graduates and is a frequent presenter, lecturer and panelist on career-related topics. Kim’s areas of expertise include professional branding, career transitions and career sustainability.

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