Making Things Right When You’ve Messed Up

February 14, 2022 9:00 am Published by

We all make mistakes. Sometimes inadvertently. Sometimes we did what we thought was right (only to find out later, it wasn’t). And sometimes we just make a poor choice – for whatever reason.

Making a mistake at work, to many of us, seems more serious than ones we commit in our personal lives. A misstep at work affects others, makes us look bad to our colleagues or boss, and may have serious ramifications on our work status.

The Challenge of Acknowledging Our Errors

For some of us, acknowledging to ourselves that we messed up is difficult. While admitting we made a mistake to others is really tough (which is why many of us never do so). We go through all sorts of gyrations to keep from owning up to the error – rationalize it away, minimize the action (or result), make excuses, blame someone else, and even deny the act completely.

The problem is – in real life, not taking responsibility for your actions and avoiding taking steps to make the situation right, doesn’t get you very far. Do you really want to be the kid with a chocolate chip cookie in his mouth who denies he took a cookie? Or, act like a sibling who complains, “It’s not my fault, he hit me first!”? But that is what we do sometimes: “I’m sorry the report isn’t done yet; Brandon is just not pulling his weight on the project.”

In our new book, Making Things Right at Work, we discuss the various reasons why people don’t apologize and explore the beliefs we hold that create barriers for us to admit we’ve done something wrong (like fear that people will think we are incompetent). If you struggle with acknowledging you’ve made a mistake (or know someone who does), chapter four, “Making Things Right When You’ve Messed Up,” will help you better understand the possible underlying dynamics.

Conflict Can Occur Even When We Haven’t Done Something Wrong

Part of the challenge of dealing with tensions in interpersonal relationships (whether at work or home) is the fact that not all conflict is a result of someone having done something wrong. You may have experienced a time when a coworker was upset with you and you had no idea why.  They were obviously hurt or offended, but you were clueless about the reason why; you couldn’t think of anything you had done that could have upset them. 

Welcome to the world of perception (and misperception). Over time, we’ve discovered that a person’s preferred language of appreciation is often also the way in which they are most easily offended! People are more “in tune” and sensitive to messages sent via their appreciation language. For example, if you go out to lunch with colleagues, and don’t invite Tonya (whose primary language is Quality Time) – watch out.  She may be quite cold and detached when you return.

Other sources of misperception include:

  • differing expectations due to our varied backgrounds
  • misunderstandings as a result of different personality and communication styles
  • cultural norms
  • misinterpreting the intent of another’s actions

Sometimes others think we have done something wrong because they interpret our actions differently than how we intended them.

This dynamic is critical to understand – otherwise, we wind up trying to figure out who was “right” and who was “wrong,” when no right or wrong actually exists in the situation.

Initial Step: Accept Responsibility

In some situations (depending upon the type of relationship between the coworkers and the nature of the error made), an acceptable apology may have multiple components. But accepting responsibility for one’s actions is almost always the starting point. If this step is not taken, you are still at square one in addressing the problem and moving toward resolution. This is true even when you did not intend any hurt or offense (like my wife says, “If you step on my foot, even if you didn’t mean to, it still hurts”). 

The starting point sounds something like: “I made a mistake,” “I didn’t do what I had agreed to,” “I shouldn’t have done that.” NOTE: You don’t have to start with “I’m sorry” (because you may not be – yet). Just admit that you did something that created a problem with someone else. For some of us, this is not that difficult; for others, it is a huge first step. Start there.

This chapter in the book goes on to address the other components of an apology, cues for understanding why a colleague may be offended, and tips for ways to verbalize some of the things we struggle to say out loud. Most of us will encounter a situation where we make a mistake or bad decision that leads to conflict with a coworker. Making Things Right at Work was written to help deal with these situations, move forward, and rebuild trust.

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This blog is part of a series introducing some of the topics and tools we cover in Making Things Right at Work. In the coming weeks, we will be offering three $50 gift cards to individuals who: a) purchase the book, b) take a photo of themselves with the book, c) post the photo on either LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #MakingThingsRight, and d) notify us at of their post. We will draw one gift card each week for those who posted the prior week.

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February 14, 2022 9:00 am

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