I’m the boss and I messed up

A reader writes:

I supervise a small team of four at a software company. My team is amazing: reliable, fast, accurate, amiable, etc. I couldn’t ask for better people to manage, and I’m proud of the work we accomplish each day.

That’s why I’m particularly embarrassed that I made a noticeable mistake at work today. We have a task that requires each team member to show up to work early, rotating through all members of the team, including me. I didn’t arrive to complete this task, which means a few of my subordinates covered for me when they arrived at their normal start time. While this didn’t ultimately affect our software’s stability, it certainly could have. I immediately notified our work chat that I’m mortified about the oversight and plan to make up for it by taking someone else’s early start this week. I also plan to directly verbally address it during our team meeting, reasserting that I am held to the same to the same expectations and standards as everyone on the team. And of course, moving forward, I will do everything in my power to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

But my question more generally is: how do managers hold themselves accountable to their subordinates when they make a mistake? And I was wondering if you thought my response sufficient, or is there something more I should do to ensure my team can trust me.

What makes this stickier is that I have a chronic mental health issue that contributed to me failing at this task. And I discussed the health issue with my own supervisor, but it seemed inappropriate to bring it up with my direct reports. Do you agree? If I continue to struggle despite my best efforts, what would be the best way to address that matter professionally?

I answer this question — and four others — on the Ask a Manager podcast today. Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Sending blind emails to out-of-town hiring managers
  • Being a frequent crier at work
  • Difficult employee resigned but now wants to stay
  • Asking for a shortened work week

The show is 28 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, the iHeartRadio app, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen above.

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. RG*

    I know this is a bit off topic, but I’d be wary of any task that requires you to be in the office and that could potentially affect software stability. I’d investigate ways to automate that if possible.

      1. Coder von Frankenstein*

        Agreed. If I were on that team, I would be burning the midnight oil figuring out how to make that thing run on its own. I’d rather burn the midnight oil once than have to come in early on a regular basis–to say nothing of dealing with the potential fallout of human beings being human and making mistakes. (Also, I hate getting up early.)

        1. OlympiasEpiriot*

          Or just circumstances preventing the needed person or people from getting there in time…like a dramatic example is Hurricane Sandy shut down several companies’ offices on the East Coast, but, people elsewhere were at jobs like normal and might need something supervised by an affected office to continue to function. A more likely event would someone getting stuck in a traffic jam due to an accident a mile ahead or in a stalled train in a tunnel which would def prevent getting in on time.

          Redundancy, ya know?

          1. TiffIf*

            Oh yeah Hurricane Sandy knocked out the electricity to my company’s HQ-where our main servers were. They had a backup diesel generator, but no one had thought when it was all planned out years before the hurricane that having the servers and therefore the generators on the TWENTIETH floor might be a bad idea if the power went out and you had no elevators. Cue a lot of people helping to lug diesel fuel up 20 flights of stairs.
            The next spring all of the servers were moved to a different location. And redundancy to another data center to the other side of the country. And the current push to start utilizing AWS instead of managing our own servers.

            1. DouDouPaille*

              Damn that is bad planning. Every company I’ve ever worked at has had servers on the ground floor or basement for this reason. However this was in an earthquake zone and they were not strapped down, so I guess not such good planning after all…

    1. TooTiredToThink*


      Although, I came to the comments section to make a comment about how awesome her direct reports are that they immediately pitched in (and yes; they should have, but that doesn’t always happen).

    2. selena81*

      When i read the letter i immediately assumed the job in question was ‘troubleshooting’: that’s the job that we rotate through and requires the designated person to arrive early.

      Of course we try to write stable code, and to test everything before it goes live, but that’s not always enough and sometimes we have to hastily rerun some of the stuff that ran that night in order to give the other departments their reports on time.

  2. Coder von Frankenstein*

    If I were on your team, I would find this response more than adequate. Human beings make mistakes. As long as you’re holding yourself accountable, taking action to ensure the mistake is not repeated, and letting your team know what you’re doing, that’s what matters.

    There is one thing that concerns me far more than how you handled this slip-up: The fact that a slip-up is possible in the first place. Your team has a task which must be done early every morning, and affects the stability of your software if not done, and requires a human being to do. Being myself a software developer, that would give me pause if I were interviewing for a job on your team; it suggests that you are not committed to improving your own systems and processes. Why has this task not been automated?

    1. WellRed*

      Good call. What if the person responsible on a given day gets hit by the proverbial bus on the way to work?

    2. Doe-Eyed*

      Agree – one of the things that has really relaxed me in my current position is that my boss sometimes makes mistakes! And when he does, he apologizes, fixes them, and then makes (brief) reparations like helping out with a shift or grabbing someone a coffee and thanks them and then… MOVES ON. The only time this doesn’t happen is when it’s a process deficiency and then we examine how to fix it.

    3. selena81*

      Yeah, definitely more then adequate.
      The thing that pisses employees off is when their boss holds them to a much higher standard then she holds herself. But no reasonable person expects their boss to be flawless (that would be awful actually, because it means i’m a complete moron compared to my boss), and the best course of action is to apologize and fix your mistakes and move on.

      Don’t makes this a THING, not when you’d wave it away when one of your team-members had a one-time slip-up: it’ll just make everyone uncomfortable if you keep tearing yourself down (unless you’re british, tearing yourself down is apparently the norm there and earns you the respect of your underlings)

  3. Anon For This*

    This is going to be the pettiest complaint ever (thus the Anon), but is there a way to ask the call-ins to cut the sycophancy a little? I understand it’s very sweetly meant, but when they wind up on the podcast and we hear 10-20 seconds of “I love you so much Alison thank you so much I’d rather listen to you than my own mother” it’s a little…much.

    And hard to listen to.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I edit it out from letters as a matter of course, but I’ll make more of a point of editing it out in the podcast too. I just thought that one was funny.

      1. Anon For This*

        I appreciate you taking this in the spirit it was meant and not being offended. I do appreciate your work here a lot.

    2. CastIrony*

      It does seem to come off as annoying, but I think it’s ultimately nice to hear how much people really appreciate Alison and all the work she does.

    3. BRR*

      For what it’s worth I don’t disagree but the couple of times I’ve written Alison (and I imagine it would be the same if I called in) I’ve included a thanks. It felt awkward not including some sort of gratitude/pleasantry.

    4. TCO*

      I don’t mind Alison leaving in a bit of praise for herself now and then–she gives us all awesome life-changing advice for free, and so if tooting her own horn helps her advance her own career that’s great by me. Maybe it helps to think of it as just another “advertisement” in the podcast.

      1. PABJ*

        and since it’s at the end of the call, you really don’t have to listen to it if you don’t want to.

  4. Red Reader*

    #4, once upon a time, I worked with a guy who had quit in a huff and then reneged it three times. The union we were all in actually mandated in the contract that members could rescind a resignation once. On the fourth occasion, he quit in a tiff on a Friday because they asked him to wait a couple weeks until a less busy week to take an offered-every-other-week training course. He was just floored when he came back in on Monday to rescind his resignation and they were like “Uh, no, we’re done jumping through your hoops every time you get grouchy.”

    1. What's with Today, today?*

      That happened to a man I know once too. In a public facing role, everyone just loved this guy and thought he could do no wrong, but behind the scenes he could get moody. He’d resign and they’d allow him to rescind the resignation. He also had a habit of verbal resignation that everybody just ignored. Until one day he verbally resigned and his boss was fed up. His boss accepted it and told him to leave. He was gobsmacked. I mean absolutely floored.

    2. Close Bracket*

      Yeah, there was a woman at a previous job who did this. She was told not to anymore before it reached the point of making a resignation permanent. Not that I think this is admirable behavior, but I envy the confidence that one will be taken back.

      1. Red Reader*

        His first three had been before I started working there. I think part of why I had been hired – he was training me, is why they asked him to wait a couple weeks on the training course – is so that they had someone else to pick up where he left off if he pulled it again. (I subsequently stayed there for eight years.)

    3. Bagpuss*

      Yes, I worked with someone who did this a couple of times. They were actually asked, when they gave notice the last time, if they were sure, and told that they would not be able to withdraw it again, but they were still surprised and outraged when they tried, 3 days later, and were told no.

    4. SheLooksFamiliar*

      I vividly remember an engineer at an employer in telecom. He gave his boss a resignation letter, packed his things, and left the same day. While packing, he told anyone within earshot that he was underappreciated, he was going to find a company that valued talent, and his team should do the same. He came back the next day and – surprise! – his badge and card key did not work at the employee entrance. He made a huge fuss with security, demanding entry and then demanding to see his boss to explain this outrage. Former boss came down and said, ‘You resigned and we accepted it. You don’t work here anymore.’ After some griping and posturing, the fellow left…

      …and came back the next day. He swooped on the CEO as he got out of his car, yelling and waving his arms, swearing that he was the best engineer we’d ever had, and the CEO had better hire better leaders because his current team wouldn’t know great talent if it kissed their…well, you get the idea. I happened to be walking by and have to admit, it was an epic meltdown. The CEO calmly said, ‘Ex-Employee, you resigned and we accepted it. We don’t have anything else to talk about. Good luck to you.’ After more yelling and wild gestures, Ex-Employee left.

      Turns out he told a teammate that he was certain that the shortage of engineers in telecom would make us freak out and offer him a lot more money to stay. He was sorely pissed that we did not.

    5. He's still here?*

      I can top that with a co-worker who has done it 7 times in the 8 years he’s been in this company. Twice in the last year alone!

      His reasons are gold..
      Resignation 1: I don’t know why. We were in different departments. A co-worker told us about it.
      Resignation 2: No joke. His girlfriend broke up with him (does not work in our company) and his pet died (not a dog or a cat, a pet that would be difficult to have a very deep emotional connection with… like a goldfish).
      Resignation 3, 4 and 5: We asked him if he was okay with moving into our biggest account. It was an okay account, just a lot of red tape. He turned in his resignation instead of saying no but took it back when we found someone else to assign in the project.
      Resignation 6: He was tired.
      Resignation 7: He was in the middle of a big project and wanted to take 2 weeks vacation at a critical time and the project manager would not approve.

      Honestly, he’s a bit of a nightmare co-worker. He has changed managers a lot so he gets away with it because I guess these managers don’t talk about how many times he’s done it. I just wish he’d go through with it for once. But he won’t because he’s bad at his job and no other company will pay him at his rate for his skills.

    6. Ex-Academic, Future Accountant*

      Did he try to pretend he’d never quit and then try to slip the boss a mickey? ;-)

  5. designbot*

    Alison, I’m so glad you told the first caller to cut out the self-flaggelation. That’s exactly what I was thinking while I was listening her to go “I did this… and this… and this… and it’ll never happen again!” I think if I was on that person’s team I’d think she was making way too big of a deal out of it. Apologizing for mistakes is great, but moving past them is even better.

    1. NW Mossy*

      And it’s particularly important when you’re working with your directs, because you’re providing the model they see about how mistakes are to be handled. If you belabor yours, they’ll take it as a signal that they should do the same with theirs – is that really the caller’s hoped-for outcome here?

      It’s valuable to show your directs that you’re a human that can make mistakes but also how to recover from them appropriately. It’s a hard skill for anyone to learn, but it becomes much easier when you have a leader that works on it and shows you what it looks like.

      1. Grits McGee*

        Absolutely- no one is going to be perfect 100% of the time (and no reasonable person would expect them to). You seem like a conscientious manager; the best thing you can do is model the kind of response you would want to see from your reports.

    2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      Haven’t had a chance to listen yet, but from your description and the letter, I agree. As a boss it’s the right thing to do to own up to your own mistake, but if you make a huge deal out of it (more so than you would if it were one of your team that made the same mistake) you are going to be ‘telling’ the team that you place an extremely high level of focus on the error.

      In other words, if you don’t drop it, your team is going to be thinking “Oh geez, if the boss made that big of a deal out missing them missing their morning rotation and they are the boss… what happens if I miss it… it’s going to be horrible”. Which will ultimately have the opposite effect than what you want.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        It’s a variation on the social rule when you burn the main course–acknowledge the mistake, apologize once, but if you keep flagellating yourself then your guests get exhausted reassuring you. Acknowledge, apologize, fix to the extent you can, move on.

        1. myswtghst*

          This is such a great point too – the amount of emotional labor it puts on the people around you when they feel like they have to keep reassuring you and telling you it isn’t a big deal. That is not something you want to saddle your direct reports with!

    3. BottleBlonde*

      Agreed, this type of response is something I’ve had to work hard to change about myself in both my professional and personal life. I’ve found that over-apologizing and dwelling on mistakes can make others uncomfortable and potentially anxious. If it were my boss, I might be thinking, “Wow, if she’s this hard on herself for making a human mistake, I better never, ever mess up myself.”

    4. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      Came to say the same. OP is making it into such big deal that either it will become all about how noble the OP is, or holy shit, this is such a big deal, if I screw it up I’ve ruined the holiday for all the orphans and the puppies and kittens will be out on the street. Not to mention the real issue, if my boss can’t move past a mistake, his own or mine, I’m going to be really worried.

    5. The Other Dawn*

      I agree, Just admit it, own it and move on. It would drive me crazy if a manager felt they needed to go above and beyond that when it’s something that could easily happen to any team member and it didn’t cause any system problems.

    6. SleepyInSeattle*

      “Apologizing for mistakes is great, but moving past them is even better.” Yup. The way I’ve framed it with my team is any time you make a serious mistake the steps are as follows:

      -accept responsibility without excuses
      -tell us how you are working to avoid the same issue in the future
      -move on

      As long as you aren’t holding your team to some ridiculous standard that you aren’t holding yourself that’s all you need to do. Dwelling on mistakes and problems is really crippling.

    7. Micromanagered*

      If I were on this person’s team, I would think “God what does she think of me when I make simple mistakes?” She needs to model for her team that “mistakes happen, we take accountability for them, but then we move on” … not “we dwell on how awful the mistake-maker is for making a mistake”!

    8. Karen from Finance*

      Yes I absolutely agree with this. And she was on point about that also maybe sending the wrong message to her team as well.

      I had a former supervisor who was always very visibly upset at himself whenever he made a mistake, and I found it quite scary and made me trust him less.

  6. animaniactoo*

    It is really sad to see how many people get ready to crawl into a ball of shame and stay there over a single medium-sized mistake.

    People are human. HUMAN. Screw-ups happen. It is not something to be concerned about beyond immediate amends to correct the current situation until it becomes a *pattern*. And while I recognize that Caller 1 is concerned that their health issue played into this – even then, it’s still not an issue until it becomes a *pattern*. And cut themselves some slack for being able to be human and make normal human mistakes that happen to people who don’t have their health issue. Yes, extra vigilance is required to make sure that things don’t become patterns. But the first sign, the first mistake, is not when it has begun to become problematic – it’s the 2nd one.

    Unfortunately it becomes harder to internalize that being human is okay when so many companies penalize people for being human when it’s inconvenient for the business. We need to stick up for each other a LOT more and continue to push back against stuff like call center metrics for how many calls you can answer in an hour and being penalized/warned/notified for the slightest drop in your stats. Or having to pay a dollar a minute lateness penalties – even when it only comes to 5 or 10 dollars.

    1. Karen from Finance*

      I was just talking about this at the office this week. We’re bred in a culture where “perfectionist” is seen as a good thing, to the point where it’s the cliché look-good answer people give in interviews when asked about their weaknesses. But it’s not that much of a virtue, as someone with anxiety: it’s not good if it’s preventing you from moving on, dealing with the task at hand, correctly prioritizing, and so on. We’ve been conditioned to hold ourselves to such a high standard that it’s actually holding us back.

  7. Anna Banana*

    Alison, I’m glad you’re going back to once a week for these! After reading what you said a couple of weeks ago about your schedule and how you never get any time off, I’m hoping this is one of the things you were referring to when you said you were trying to cut some things out so you could take some time back for your self. We support anything that will keep you from burning out even if it’s less content for us!

    1. CastIrony*

      I second this!
      Imagine my surprise, though, when I didn’t see the podcast on Monday! That’s what I get for not listening to all of the last podcast! :)

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Thank you! This is indeed one of the things I’m changing to try to get some control over my schedule. And I am already feeling the additional breathing room, so that’s been great. (I will also be taking some time off in December, thanks to the slew of updates that will prevent me from having to write quite a few posts myself.)

  8. CastIrony*

    I have two questions over the cold-calling out-of-town hiring managers question:
    1) How do I convey in my cover letter that I am moving; I’d like some sample language.

    2) I am job-searching, and I found a temporary position that I am interested in both in my hometown and the same one in a different town that would let me move for a temporary position (I want to reunite with my long-distance twin, who is in graduate school, for a while). If I were to be offered this job permanently, I’d need two things: My twin and I will have to move back a little bit after the end of the temporary position’s end date (If I got the position that let me move), but I would love to work in that same company in my current town. In addition, I would like to make a second transfer that would materialize a year or two later (My twin is going for their Ph.D, and I want to follow them). How would I navigate this?

    TL:DR: How do I ask for one to two job transfers if I plan to move twice if I got hired for a temporary position that becomes permanent due to my performance?

    1. Catsonakeyboard*

      on 2) I don’t think you can.

      I think you can take the temporary position in good faith for the time that you plan to be there. During that time, you’ll probably figure out a lot about the way things are structured – if everyone in Role A is also in Town A, if your manager has reports from external locations, etc.

      Then if you ARE offered a permanent position, you’ll have a decent idea of what might be possible and could potentially negotiate – but keep in mind even then there’s a good chance that no matter how much they liked you, they won’t say “sure, you can work in Town B” for a year and then go to “Town C” – it may be that you’d have to apply to transfer locations or you might get told a flat no.

      But you’re planning a future based on a lot of what-ifs …if you get the temporary position, that it is even a temporary position that could lead to a permanent, that the permanent will happen and that it will also work out with a projected move by your twin that may or may not happen.

      1. Psyche*

        Yep. It is nice to plan ahead, but there are way too many variable to worry about potential transfers at this point. I would say try to get the temporary position and if it works out, ask them to be a reference when you apply at the location in your hometown. I don’t think you need to worry about potentially transferring when your twin goes back to grad school. Cross that bridge when you come to it.

    2. CastIrony*

      Catsonakeyboard and Psyche, I appreciate your replies. I tend to worry a lot. I also plan to cross that bridge when I get there. Who knows? I may not even get the positions!

  9. AnotherSarah*

    In addition to encouraging self-flagellation, excessive apologies put a lot on the recipients of the apologies–it’s now on THEM to say “oh no, it wasn’t a big deal,” over and over….Another reason to keep things simple and sincere.

    1. Lucille2*

      Agree with this. I used to work with a project manager who was consistently late for every meeting she organized. It wasn’t a couple of minutes, it was regularly 15 minutes, sometimes longer. People would just not show up or dial in, but when she was ready to start she would email everyone to dial in.

      At one point when she did this, she made all the usual apologies and not one person responded. There was a bit of an awkward silence like she expected us to all to tell her we understood, no big deal, or whatever. But honestly, we were all tired of giving her the room to continue wasting everyone’s time.

      People are human; mistakes are occasionally made. Be accountable to those mistakes, take steps to prevent repeating same mistakes, and give your team room to do the same.

      1. AnotherSarah*

        Captain Awkward often writes about “closing the social circle.” If you mess up once, you apologize, hopefully people forgive you, and then the transaction is done. (Obviously this depends on the offence and frequency, but it should be fine for small one-offs.) If you keep going…you’re not letting that circle close.

  10. jiminy_cricket*

    I’m a crier – again, if I’m below a 3 or above a 7, or mad – and this advice was helpful to me. I’m lucky to have an office and so I just disappear there, but dang. I had a male boss who was younger than me and when I cried in front of him, I said, “Don’t you dare hold this against me – I cry when I’m fired up and I feel very strongly about this issue. We can continue to discuss [this].” It worked for us at the time, but would not work in my current job so I am glad to have new ideas.

  11. Mousey Ann*

    You mention that a chronic mental health issue is also at play here. If you have someone -a therapist, a family member you can trust with this- you may want to talk through your reaction with them. This feels like catastrophizing. If this is something you know you have a tendency towards, keep that in mind when you make a mistake and try to figure out some mechanisms to handle that tendency.

    When we make mistakes, the steps are pretty much the same whether you are a manager or not:
    1) apologize / own up to the mistake. This does not need to be effusive or even get into any sort of self-flagellation. Keep it fairly simple.
    2) Thank those who stepped up and took care of it. Again, doesn’t need to be effusive, but a simple acknowledgement of their effort is a great thing to do.
    3) Explain, if needed, what processes or changes can help prevent this in the future.
    So for example,
    “I’m sorry I was late this morning and wasn’t able to turn on the X system. Thank you Juanita for taking care of that. Going forward we are exploring setting up job that is triggered by the system automatically so it is no longer a manual process.”

    In a situation like this that really is all that is needed. If it becomes a pattern or if the mistake has larger consequences more might be required. But even then that would be more something that should be between you and your superiors, not you and your subordinates. To your subordinates, they need to know that you are taking responsibility for it and basically that is it. Extended apologies or explanations, declarations of mortification or any hint of self-flagellation can often become extremely uncomfortable to the receiver.

  12. Public Sector Manager*

    For OP #1, a general rule of thumb is that you hold yourself and your staff to the same standard.

    So in your example, if one of your staff missed their early start time, I assume the first discussion you’d have with them would be really informal and you would express concern (“Hey, you missed your start time today. Is everything okay?”). And if they kept doing it, the discussions would ratchet up until you moved into PIP territory and beyond.

    You’re at the first offense level but you’re treating yourself like your going on a PIP that afternoon. I completely agree you need to stop flogging yourself over the issue and what you’ve done is more than enough.

    Best of luck to you!

  13. WMM*

    As a natural cryer, I have found three things that have helped substantially: I take a GABA amino acid supplement, and it helps me feel more ‘in control’ during emotional stress, so I have both a wider range of non-weepy emotion, and I feel less ‘thrown off’ and upset with myself when I do end up crying when I’d rather not be. Second, I do regular mindfulness practice- I took a class, practice regularly, and I now feel much more in tune with myself. Third, what the mindfulness practice taught me most specifically, was that if I fight tears, they actually take longer to abate. If I let it go, don’t judge myself, and accept that yes, right now I am crying, it all passes much more easily, and I’m not as likely to end up ugly crying over work matters.

  14. myswtghst*

    One thing I was surprised wasn’t mentioned in response to the caller asking to change their shift from 5x8s to 4x10s was the fact that the commute change impacts everyone in the office. Granted, it might not impact everyone equally, but it’s important to keep in mind that it will impact everyone in some way, so on it’s own, it isn’t a reason why the caller should get first dibs on the desirable schedule option. It’s definitely worth considering if this is a deal-breaker, and being clear with the boss about it if it is, but I’d also find a way to let my boss know that I understand the broader impact here when I approach her.

  15. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    Have to give you credit.

    Ya got guts.

    You admitted you were wrong – and offered to make up for it, and communicated that to your entire team. Most supervisory/managerial people wouldn’t do that.

    No one is perfect… finding someone in authority to admit to not being perfect is refreshing. You handled it correctly, and hopefully no one’s going to rag on you for that.

Comments are closed.