So, you screwed up. Here's how to make it worse!
[Note to managers: share this with ALL of your reports before they screw up. I’m intentionally being blunt so you don’t have to be.]
Watergate. Once described as “a third-rate burglary” in the 1970s seems pretty tame by today’s political standards. Even our professional sports teams these days have been accused of breaking the rules by stealing intelligence from their opponents. But it was the cover-up and dirty tricks that led a sitting President to resign in disgrace and accelerated the decline of trust Americans have in their federal government.
If you’re not old enough to remember Watergate, you might remember the Lewinsky Scandal. President Bill Clinton had an improper personal relationship with his intern Monica Lewinsky. It’s hard to imagine the most powerful person in the world not having the opportunity to make a mistake like this at least once. But the lies, stonewalling and character assassination of the investigators gave his opponents the ability to accuse Clinton of perjury and impeach the President in 1988.
You can probably think of many examples of cover-ups that were worse than the crime. Intentionally or unintentionally, people foul things up. Take it from someone that makes at least one mistake every day, it’s the reaction to your mistakes that reveals your true character.
There are worse things than admitting you made a mistake or a regrettable decision. In fact, there are at least nine ways to make your situation even worse:
- Fail to acknowledge that you actually made a mistake. (aka Believing your own BS.) I’m not talking about what you tell the client or even what you tell your boss. I’m talking about actually believing you didn’t screw up even though the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Here’s a news flash, Icarus! You’re not perfect. It’s not inconceivable that you didn’t make a mistake. Start taking a look back on your actions with a more critical eye. Step 1 of any 12-step program is admitting you actually have (or in this case, caused) a problem.
- Lie about what actually happened. (aka If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS.) This includes shading the truth just enough, or omitting key facts, to create a reasonable doubt to save your skin. If you have a lazy manager who doesn’t bother to check the facts, you might be able to get away with it THIS TIME. But the first time they DO actually check the facts and find inconsistencies, it will cast doubt on every thing you’ve told them in the past. Maybe that’s why your resume is filled with jobs you’ve been able to keep less than two years?
- Throw a team member under the bus. (aka It wasn’t me!) If you use this tactic, you’re burning bridges you may need to cross rough waters later. Don’t think your finger pointing is where it ends. They’ll almost certainly will be asked for their account of the events and will find out who ratted on them. Good luck getting them to work with you again! And if they have to, expect them to be very guarded and suspicious of your motives. They’ll likely spend more time covering their ass than busting their ass. Either way, you’ve demotivated them from giving your project their best effort.
- Redirect attention someplace else. (aka Never mind ME, look what’s going on over THERE!) Speaking of Washington politicians, this is one of their favorite tactics. They figure people like your boss have short attention spans, so they get the heat off of them by yelling SQUIRREL! The problem is, in the business world, the squirrels can point back at you and yell SCREW UP! Leave the misdirection up to the magicians. There’s nothing magical about pointing out someone else’s bad behavior to make yours seem more acceptable.
- Blame your company. (aka My hands are tied!) There’s nothing a boss likes to hear more than "it’s YOUR fault I screwed up!” If there are legitimate weaknesses in your product, your policies, your workflow, by all means point them out. But do it proactively BEFORE it causes a mistake, not as a justification for your error. Besides, if no one else in the company is making the same mistake, guess what? It’s not them, it’s you!
- Blame those who can’t defend themselves. (aka The dog ate my homework.) Having secret meetings, gossiping and swearing other people to secrecy, so the one catching the blame can’t offer their side of the story, is grossly unfair. It's the kind of behavior you’d expect if we were still in high school. This also includes blaming people who don’t have a voice — like former coworkers and vendors. Nobody likes a backstabber. And if your charge can’t withstand a little cross-examination, imagine how you’ll look if somebody spills the beans and exposes your story? For every finger you point at someone else, there are three more pointing back at you.
- Blame the account. (aka Our customers are stupid!) Maybe they are stupid, but maybe they’re not. Maybe you’ve just failed to convince them of the wisdom in buying from you. They’re going to take actions that work best for them — and they aren’t obligated to tell you what they’re going to do next. Could it be they just told you what you wanted to hear? Could it be it was just wishful thinking on your part — making you so eager to believe it without verification. Either you’ve lost control of the account, or you never had it in the first place.
- Rationalize your bad decision. (aka “Yeah, but…”) …everybody does it… I’m sure they’ve probably done worse to me… it’s not that big of a deal… they’re already successful enough… he favors her over the rest of the staff, etc. Remember when your first grade teacher asked you "If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?" You can’t stand out by being like everyone else. Your second grade teacher also taught you “two wrongs don’t make a right."
- Don’t offer a sincere apology for your part in the mess. (aka Why should I apologize?!?) Even if you’re not totally responsible, being partly responsible for a fumble is reason to offer a sincere apology to those you’ve impacted. Own it! Apologize with no ifs, ands or buts. It’s not uncommon to see both the quarterback and the running back apologize to the rest of the football team for a botched handoff that costs them the game. You’ll earn a lot more respect by acknowledging your mistake than stubbornly insisting you did nothing wrong.
9+1. Fail to learn from your mistake. I never lose — I win or I learn. Since managers always want solutions, what are YOU going to do to prevent it from happening again? Just like your kids have probably been told in youth soccer, it’s only a loss if you lose the lesson.
Your credibility is like a bank account. You have to work hard to build it up. But every time, you spend credibility capital on tactics like these, you’re tapping into that account until there’s nothing left. Better to save your capital for when you make a really BIG screw-up!
Then again, wouldn’t it be simpler to just be a stand-up kind of person who takes personal responsibility for your actions and then works to make it right?