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Safe Space #14 – How to Admit Mistakes

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Here at =mc we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this regular feature we share some of those challenges, and our advice, for dealing with them.

This time, the issue comes from a team member with a very relatable challenge: making a mistake at work

What is the issue?

Hello =mc team, I’m really hoping you can help me. I am in a bit of a situation at work and don’t know what to do about it. It’s making me feel awful to be honest. Basically, I’ve made a huge mistake and now I’m panicking a bit. I’m a Project Coordinator for an international project. It’s my job to make sure the project plans are well managed, including dealing with all the complex admin that comes with multi-party, global projects. The issue is I’ve slipped up and missed something. It seemed small at the time: getting something signed off by a partner organisation. But now it’s actually a much bigger problem. It was never quite agreed you see, and now the project will stall at the very least, or fail completely at worst. The long and the short of it is that one partner is likely to pull out – and legitimately so. This means the next phase can’t go ahead without finding another partner, or convincing the current partner to stick with us. This is squarely on me – I didn’t realise, and didn’t follow up. I should have known, and should have done something about it. Now I feel terrible about the project and don’t know what to do next. I’m worried about how my boss will react, and keep putting off telling them. I’ve looked at how I could change some emails so I can cover my tracks a bit and make it look like it isn’t on me. I know that isn’t honest, but I’m so anxious it’s making me feel ill. I’ve been avoiding catch ups and team meetings. I know people make mistakes all the time, but this feels huge and I’ve personally never done anything like this. I’m usually really great at my job, and my boss lets me get on with things because they trust me. Now that trust has been broken and I think I’ll get into a lot of trouble. Would they fire me over this? I love my job, this organisation, and our work. I’d hate to be caught out. I’m so torn about what to do. How do I make this go away?

What our team say:

Charlie

Hello Project Coordinator. Thanks so much for getting in touch – and for being honest with us. Now the very first thing I want you to do is take a big, long, deep, breath. Repeat until you feel calmer. This situation is bad, I’m not denying it – but it doesn’t have to be catastrophic. As you say, everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – makes a mistake at some point. The way to recover is to deal with it properly. That means being honest. Lying is never a good idea, no matter what you see happening in the world around you. Think about all the times you’ve seen liars getting caught out – and how people react to that. Plus it seems like you care a great deal about your work, so trying to lie your way out of this may eat away at you, making you feel worse than you already do. Try and keep this situation in perspective – think of all the things you get right, and how many times you have done the right thing. The best thing you can do is find a way to take control of the situation. Start with planning: identify who you need to tell about this, and what you want them to do in response. This sounds like it could be your boss? What do you want from them? A solution? Help? Forgiveness? Then, you can figure out exactly what it is that you need to tell them.

Yvette

Hi there Project Coordinator. I’m sorry to see you are finding this situation so tough. I’ve been there, and know how horrible this kind of situation can feel. Charlie is right – facing it head on is better than worrying about it and avoiding people. When you are ready to talk to your boss, I’d recommend getting straight to the point. Tell them the key thing they need to know. Don’t waffle. Spell it out. Try ‘I made a mistake with this admin process and now our partner may leave’. Tell them the bad thing and get it off your chest. Then you can move on to explain the context. Explain how this happened but don’t excuse it. Keep this factual – they need to know that you know what went wrong, so together you can find a way to sort it out.

Laura

Dear Project Coordinator, I’m so pleased you have brought this up. So many people worry about work, and that can feel really lonely. It’s helpful to know that whilst we should all be doing everything we can to avoid mistakes, we sometimes slip up. This situation, as bad as it feels, is a human situation. You are only human, and from time to time things will go wrong. You have explained above that you know this will have an impact on the project and it could be delayed or even stopped. This can help you to feel braver – make this situation not about you, but about the impact you see on others. When you seek help on this, focus on the project – and the beneficiaries of that project. So make your conversation about other people, not about you. Try reversing the situation. If you were your boss, what would you need to hear in order to handle the delay or problems? What would make this situation less frustrating? It really helps to consider other people’s perspectives.

Rachel

Hello Project Coordinator. Ouch! I just want to echo what the others have said: been there, made a mistake, felt bad, worried, fixed it! When I’ve had to deal with mistakes, I’ve learned that it helps to stay solutions focused. Building on Laura’s advice, think about how you can show your boss, and indeed other people, that you have identified potential ways forward. How might you re-engage that partner? What other partners may be interested? How would you engage them? What else could you recommend? It’s also helpful to show that you have learned from this. Highlight what you would do differently next time, to either prevent this from happening again, or to mitigate the impact if that’s not possible. You can recover from this, by holding up your hands and then getting stuck into fixing things.

Philly

Dear Project Coordinator. It strikes me that you have a good relationship with your boss. You talk about this being a trusting relationship. They have trusted you before, and so they know you do good work and most importantly that you have good intentions. It helps to remember that, lean into that relationship. Your relationship with your boss is based on a series of conversations. This is another conversation in the series – though it may be difficult and unpleasant. It will be important to acknowledge their feelings and make some space for those. Their response may not be nice, but their feelings are legitimate. All conversations are two way, so you may not be able to plan for everything that will happen. They may be frustrated, disappointed, upset or annoyed. Or none of the above. Or something else. None of it will be wrong. Think about what they might want to say, vent or do so you can feel prepared for that – rather than fearing it.

Hannah

Hi Project Coordinator. This is a tough situation, but it can also be a positive experience if you are prepared to do the hard work and hold those difficult conversations as my colleagues have outlined. Ultimately this is about learning. Try to see this as an opportunity to develop your ways of working and your communication skills. Say you are sorry, and outline what you have learned. Take some time for yourself to acknowledge this error and how you got here. Circling back to Charlie’s point, keep this in perspective. In five years, how do you want to look back on this situation: a mistake compounded by a lie? Or an error resulting in learning? We all wish you the best with this, keep positive, and deal with it. Learn. Move on.

What next?

If you’d like to explore ways of handling for situations like this, contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to discuss similar challenges and how we might be able to help.

Finally, if you’re facing a challenge you’d like some advice on in the next issue of the Safe Space, email us on safespace@managementcentre.co.uk. While we can’t promise to publish all the requests we receive, we will offer advice by email as a minimum.

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Charlotte Scott

About Charlotte Scott

Charlotte specialises in leadership development, team facilitation and strategy development. Charlotte worked for over 20 years in the not-for-profit sector. Before joining =mc ten years ago, she created and implemented...

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project governance and management, as well as leadership and management development. Laura has 8 years’ experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering regional...

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About Hannah Moore

Hannah specialises in developing people and project management with an emphasis on coaching and communication skills. Hannah’s background is in the arts, heritage and education sectors where she has...

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About Rachel Whittle

Rachel specialises in management development and personal effectiveness. Rachel has 8 years’ experience of fundraising and project management in the charity sector. Before joining =mc, she specialised in direct...

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Philly Graham

About Philly Graham

Philly specialises in personal effectiveness, communications and management development. She is an accredited coach, action learning set facilitator and a CIPD Learning and Development Associate. Philly’s career has spanned...

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