my manager wants me to take more responsibility for my mistakes

A reader asks:

My manager recently told me that she doesn’t like the way I handle mistakes. I do make mistakes, and they’re not always trivial ones, but I usually try to fix them and move on. Apparently since I don’t inform her when this happens, it’s coming across to her as me not taking responsibility or seeming “cavalier” about my work quality. But I don’t understand what she’s looking for. Can you help?

Well, first, you need to know what’s going on in your manager’s head when she learns that you’ve made a mistake. Beyond thinking about the repercussions of the mistake itself, she’s worrying about what it means for the larger picture: Did the mistake happen because of sloppy work habits or was this one isolated incident? Is there a fundamental problem with your systems or approach to the work? Do you realize that this is a big deal, or are you shrugging it off and thus likely to let something similar happen in the future?

Once you understand this, the formula for handling a mistake well becomes more intuitive: Tell your boss what happened, take responsibility for it, and tell her how you’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again.

If you don’t do each of those steps, you leave your boss wondering if she can trust that similar mistakes won’t happen again.

After all, if you don’t tell her what happened, or if you put it off out of fear of the conversation, you’re sending the message that you value your own comfort over the needs of the work.

Taking responsibility means using words like: “I really messed this up. I’m sorry.” (In fact, the more concerned you seem, the less likely she is to feel she needs to impress the severity on you. If you proactively show that you get it, there’s no need for her to underscore it.) But if you instead act like it wasn’t a big deal or get defensive about it, you can actually compound the damage: Your boss will be far more alarmed that you don’t really care that you made a mistake than she will be by the mistake itself. Rather than making the mistake less noticeable, what will really stand out is that you’re not taking responsibility for it.

The third step – telling your boss how it happened and how you plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again – isn’t so much that she wants to know as it is that she wants to know that you know. And that’s because if you don’t understand how it happened, you’re not well equipped to keep it from happening again.

You’re going to make mistakes from time to time, and any halfway sane boss knows that. As long as your mistakes remain occasional and not constant, how you handle them will be what matters most.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Runon*

    I always let my boss know as soon as I see something that is wrong, if I did it or if it is something that is on my plate that someone else broke. A big part of the reason is when his boss comes and says, hey! This isn’t working, hey this is wrong, hey there is an error. My boss wants to be able to say, yes, we know about it, here is our time frame to fix it, Runon is working on it.

    If the boss’s boss comes and says Hey problem! And your boss has to say, “I have no idea what is going on” then your boss is going to seem to not be doing their job.

    Always tell your boss when there is a problem.

    1. fposte*

      Though it can be tricky sometimes, especially in your earlier career years, to know what bosses need to know (or your boss wants to know). If that was part of the OP’s problem, she’s gotten some clear indication of what her manager wants to hear about, and this is the moment to clarify if there are further questions.

      1. Runon*

        Yeah, I do think you are better off erroring on the side of offer the information and let your boss say hey you don’t need to tell me.

        I’d rather tell, and be told, more than I need. If the boss doesn’t need to know they can say, don’t worry about it. If the boss does they can deal with it. Unless you are making mistakes 10 times a week, in which case you are telling your boss about every spelling error before you fix it or you need to reconsider your process. (May vary by industry.)

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          Very true. I don’t bother my boss with every single mistake I make, because I’ve been working with him for so long that I know what he does and doesn’t want to be bothered with. But especially early in your career, more information is better than less.

          What I like to hear as a boss when someone screws up is, “Here is my mistake, here’s my proposed solution, and here’s how I plan to make sure I don’t make the same mistake again.” I think first mistakes are wonderful learning opportunities and should be treated as such. Making the same mistake multiple times, on the other hand, makes me think “sloppy and unreliable.”

    2. Vicki*

      Unless you have a boss who says “Why are you telling me this? Fix it and stop bothering me unless it’s something you can’t fix on your own.”

    3. Gmac*

      Always tell your boss only applies if you work for a company that accepts people make mistakes and sees it in context.

    4. WM*

      I notify my manager when I make a mistake – along the same lines as everyone else, “this is the mistake I made, this is how I resolved it” or “this is the mistake I made, this is how I would like to resolve it, do you agree this is the correct step?”

      One BIG reason for letting my manager know when I’ve screwed up… is because she does not like to get caught off guard. Sometimes I may have thought I handled a mistake and the client is happy, only to find out they went to her to complain, or maybe she got wind of this mistake through general chatter, etc.

      If she were to be approached about a mistake one of her associates made and she has no idea about it… that makes her look bad. It makes her look like she has no idea what’s going on in her department. If she already knows what you did and how you fixed it – it makes her look GREAT. She knows all about it, how you resolved it, and can speak to the situation in general.

      Owning up to mistakes up front not only makes you as the employee look reliable and honest, but it also helps your boss look good to her boss and clients!

  2. Sali*

    Thanks for this – I make mistakes at work and my manager ALWAYS notices them, so it makes me want to slink away into the corner and pretend it didn’t happen. But instead, I ALWAYS acknowledge them, learn from them, and try not to do it again. It’s good to know I’ve been taking the right approach.

    There have even been times I’ve done something wrong that she hasn’t noticed, so I could get away with it. But I always mention it anyway, because I figure it’s better to tell her that I did something wrong, noticed it, and then rectified it, rather than letting her discover my mistake down the line and think I was keeping the truth from her.

    1. Runon*

      I find whenever I tell my boss something I did wrong and I tell him right away it isn’t a big deal, but if he finds out later then he’s getting very concerned.

      1. Jamie*

        Exactly this. Because if someone alerts you when there is an issue, even when it’s their error, you trust them to tell you when something is up. If they don’t tell (or hide it) and you discover it anyway you wonder what the heck else you don’t know about.

        It’s just about credibility and reputation – you can’t overstate how important those two things are.

        Both of those will also get you the benefit of the doubt when called for. I.e. if I have a user where nothing is ever their error – then my default is that everything is their error. If I have a user who will tell me when they messed something up then I believe them another time when they tell me they didn’t.

      2. Jessa*

        And tell them how you’re fixing it and going to prevent it in the future if it’s even oh 60% of major. I mean if it’s a tiny mistake, no big deal, but if you mess something up they don’t just want to know it’s fixed, they want to know your strategy for not doing the same kinds of mess again.

  3. The IT Manager*

    I feel like the LW answered her own question in the question. Your boss has conveyed to you that she wants to be informed when you make a mistake and have to fix it. So do it. I completely understand wanting to not draw attention to it, but you’ve been told that’s not she wants. Plus she’s apparently finding out about them anyway so better coming from you than someone else – possibly someone else higher up, possibly with some questions that she doesn’t have the answer to because it’s the first she’s heard of your mistake.

    And if you’re brushing your mistakes under the rug, how is she to know that your mistakes don’t have the same root cause that you’re not bothering to address i.e. a cavalier attitude about quality?

  4. AG*

    As Tom Hagen says in The Godfather, “Mr Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news at once.”

    Tell your boss the bad news and what you plan to do to fix it immediately. If she finds out later, it looks like you’re hiding it from her and/or don’t take it seriously.

  5. Anonymous*

    This is a big part of my job in Compliance: fixing the process so the error camnot happen again. Are there checks and balances in place to catch the mistakes? Ae they the same type of mistakes, or are you coming up with a bunch of new ones? Are you taking shortcuts? Does the process need fixing? Do you need better tools? Yes, it’s important to fix your errors, but if you’re making a lot of them, it’s a flag that there’s a problem. Now that you know that your manager wants to be notified, that should be part of your procedure when fixing them.

  6. W.W.A.*

    I had a terrible situation with a previous boss where no one could ever figure out when to tell him about mistakes or even just small, inevitable problems. He would often blow his stack over very small issues, and our work was so fast paced that we couldn’t possibly tell him about all the tiny little issues that popped up and immediately got solved, most of which were not even mistakes per se. We really felt like informing him of every issue enabled his micromanaging and abusive behavior.

    1. AG*

      Then he has abdicated his right to that information by not having an appropriate response history.

  7. Karen*

    The one thing that I am repeatedly complimented for at performance review time is that I ALWAYS admit when I make a mistake. I won’t do it for small stuff that can be easily fixed, but any sort of big uh-oh, I am the 1st person to raise my hand and say, “hey, I messed up.” Being honest like that and transparent has really gotten me ahead further at work, rather than making a mistake and not owning up to it.

    Good luck!

  8. Kelsey N*

    I could be looking at this differently from the LW, but it sounded like she wanted to know how to differentiate between regular mistakes and ones that need to be reported, and I don’t feel like that really got addressed even though I was hoping it would when I saw the title.

    I mean, if I accidentally print out 50 copies of our newsletter and find out a date on there was wrong, but fix it before the newsletter is sent out, I don’t need to go to my boss afterward and say, “Hey, the newsletter’s been distributed. By the way, after I printed out the first batch of copies, I found out a date was wrong in there. So I tossed those and printed 50 new ones. Okay?” She’d think I was nuts. If the LW is new to the working world, she might not always know how to differentiate between small errors the boss doesn’t need to be bothered with (because they were fixed before they affected anyone) and real issues.

    1. Jamie*

      This is a great point. Certainly if I wouldn’t want to be told about every time someone needed to fix a typo. You’d need a full time person just to handle confessions.

      1. W.W.A.*

        This is a know-your-boss situation. As I mentioned above, I had a boss who actually did demand to know about penny ante crap like that, because it was an opportunity for him to hold over my head how close the organization came to utter humiliation because of my carelessness!

  9. Rob (Bacon) Bird*

    And that is perfectly acceptable. For me, if someone I am supervising makes a mistake I want them to correct it (unless they don’t know how or it is something very serious). I want them to come talk to me when they have fixed it to explain what happened, how they corrected it, and what they will do to ensure it doesn’t happen again in the future.

    I give the people I supervise that authority to do what they think is right, as long as what they are doing is in the best interests of our organization.

    1. Jessa*

      I think the main issue is this – if someone I supervise makes a mistake, I mostly don’t care as long as they fix it. The delineator for ME would be if someone else knew about it or it was a major thing that cost a lot of money.

      The absolute worst thing for that report would be if I heard about it from someone else and it cost money or embarrassed the company. There’s a difference between, “I caught an error on the newsletter before we put it on the website,” and “I printed 100 copies of a 25 page document on photographic paper with errors in it.”

      If I got a call from the person down in the shredding room, or the person who sent the recycling out asking me why 100 brochures are in the trash, I’d probably have a fit if I didn’t know why. And at that point the solution would be imposed, as opposed to asked for or discussed.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        In addition to things that cost money, managers should also want to know about mistakes that impact a relationship with important people (clients, board members, allies, etc.), anything public, and anything that uses significant resources that wouldn’t have otherwise been used (including time).

  10. darsenfeld*

    Well nobody is perfect and mistakes do occur. Nonetheless, informing bosses of them is crucial since it shows humility, responsibility and integrity.

    A manager needs to be secure in that his or her staff can be trusted. S/he also needs to be sure that they provide all inputs to do his or her job effectively. If an employee covers up mistakes, it can impact on a manager’s work duties, and even the path of a department, unit or organisation. Think of it for a moment. Would you welcome a subordinate hiding a mistake from you, and you finding out later by other means? Would you be able to trust this person again?

    When any work mistake is conducted, all that is required is a basic apology, and an explanation as to how it will not occur again. If a manager opts to discipline you (whether this is just a simple chewing out, or even a warning letter or memorandum), so be it, though this will depend on the firm’s HR policies. However, I’d think most good managers will respect an employee who can own his or her actions and acknowledge when they went wrong.

    Furthermore, mistakes can lead to growth in the short and long-term. As they say, everything is a learning curve lol..

  11. Sharon*

    How about a boss that made several “mistakes” with a client and is letting you take the blame for it? That’s the boat I am in and I am disgusted by it. 20+ years in my industry and HE failed to follow up and now the client thinks I am the incompetent one and actually sneers every time she has to deal with me! Yes, it’s a large client but there are more than one way to explain to someone that a “mistake” occurred without placing direct blame on anyone AND without making someone out to be incompetent. I almost gave my notice over it today. I truly feel like I have been thrown under the bus.

  12. Cassie*

    I used to take piano lessons and when you make a mistake while playing in a recital, you just keep going and pretend like nothing’s wrong. It doesn’t work so well in the workplace, especially when your mistake may come back to bite you in the butt.

    I don’t bother my boss with minor mistakes (although I will make a note to myself on what I did wrong or what I need to do in the future to avoid the same mistake). For major mistakes, or ones that are (will be) visible, I will talk to my boss and let him know what I will do (or have done) to fix it. He’s a big picture kind of person and usually just says “ok, ok” when I try explaining anything.

    Although, I don’t know to say that I rarely apologize? I’ll say “I made a mistake” but I don’t know if I’ve ever said “I’m sorry”. At least, I haven’t to my boss (I have apologized to external or internal stakeholders, though).

  13. Meg*

    As a “do things now, ask for forgiveness later” kind of person, I definitely own up to my mistakes. But that’s a lot of the reason why I was hired too – I’m a quick decision maker. But that tends to go against the grain with the older political mentality here. At my job, it takes months, sometimes even years (one of the projects I’m working on took two years to actually start for no good reason, and another project I was working on has been in the works for 4 years, but it never gets completed because the decision makers can’t make up their minds on what they want) for things to get done, and the upper UPPER level management is tired of it. Not to toot my own horn, but I pride myself in being able to get things DONE. I will have a product to show you.

    The only problem I’m facing now is “This isn’t how we do things here. You screwed up the procedure and went against our informal policy.” But luckily it’s a learning process (and my supervisor has been here 6 years, and is 99.99% on my side [as he’s the one who hired me], so I don’t feel bad going to him and being like, “Hey, this is what I did. It broke something. How do I fix it?” or “I have 3 solutions to this problem, I’m inclined to go with this one. What do you anticipate the political pressure to be on this?”

    (by political pressure, I mean that people are very VERY set in their ways on how we do things, and if a solution is great, but goes against how they normally did it before I was here, then it’s likely to not see the light of day)

    And as the new person, I’m always the one breaking things (I’m a web developer), but I’m also good at what I do, which included fixing things too when other people break it.

  14. Artemesia*

    I think the rule is that if the mistake impacted a client or the work of others, then a quick heads up is in order so the boss isn’t caught off guard. If it is something you can fix without the world being involved then no one needs to know, you just need to fix it and move on.

    Constantly announcing errors will get your the reputation of being the office screw up, but so will letting your boss be embarrassed when his boss mentioned it and he doesn’t know.

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