We have all been there to varying degrees of dramatic results, I’m sure, and I believe that this is part of the human condition. Nobody is without fail, and we all end up making mistakes, be they minuscule slips or enormous errors. It’s how we react to it that determines how the story continues! The reaction may have different effects depending on our position in the story, our role in the development of the situation, the importance of the mistake, and who we are responsible to.
Sometimes you might even believe that there is no need to take any responsibility at all, especially if you are running a business on your own. If you make any mistakes, you are responsible only to yourself. While that is a comfortable position in terms of determining where the blame will land, it’s a tricky one from your own personal viewpoint. Having nobody else to blame for anything places a huge amount of responsibility and self-control on you. If you are the kind of person who loses a lot of time and effort on things that get out of hand, you may possibly end up hitting yourself over the head once too often, and ultimately give up.
On the plus side you cannot blame it on anyone else, you will always have to take responsibility for your actions. Not being able to hide from your mistakes is a pretty good reality filter for anyone. In a way, this may just be a brilliant position for a self-employed person as it holds up a mirror to you that is relentless, yes, but also does not allow for any level of delusion. It’s all binary: either your do things right, or you do things wrong. No middle way possible.
Being the boss
So far we had a situation where you cannot hide from yourself, but if you have people working for you, there is always a temptation to blame some things on your employees or someone lower on the hierarchy when things go wrong. I’m certainly not claiming that this is how things usually work, but I have experienced situations where this has been exploited by someone higher up to cover up their own mistakes and blaming lower ranks. While this is probably an exception rather than the rule, it is an act of cowardice on the part of the boss-kind person! If they have made a mistake, it’s not acceptable to push the responsibility down the ladder.
I am convinced, though, that sometimes things are not as clear-cut as they seem to an outsider. Just think about errors in communication: when someone misunderstands instructions, who’s to blame, the person writing them or the person interpreting them incorrectly? Who’s to decide? It’s all pretty subjective, especially if we and up inspecting every phrase through a microscope.
It is my personal belief that it’s more advantageous to take responsibility in the long run, and I would hold someone higher up the ranks to the understanding that they need to be clear about what their instructions are and how they could be interpreted. That’s not to say that employees should always be set free of responsibility, but it can be hard to determine where we stand in many cases.
Taking responsibility can be a good thing, as well. Sometimes owning up to what you believe to be a mistake builds trust in you as a person. Sharing responsibility for things gone wrong can also be the start of a better working relationship, provided all sides agree that it’s a shared responsibility, that is.
Being an employee
In the role of an employee, it can become all too easy to decline any responsibility by declaring lesser status, limited knowledge of the underlying issues, etc. because you are only dealing with a small part of a larger picture. While that is certainly true, it does not free you from the responsibility to understand your own part in a larger project! The responsibility here is to make sure you understand things correctly, and to ask for clarifications as soon as you start having doubts about this.
Alas, that leaves a large loophole: what if you are not aware you have misunderstood something? Well, in that case, the responsibility would appear to lie with the person who issued the instructions in the first place – the boss. One part of being the boss is to make sure whoever you are supervising knows what they are expected to do, right?
Again, there is a grey zone: who is to say that the employee won’t say ‘everything appeared to be clear’ until they were made aware of the problem? It’s simple to deny responsibility, and I am pretty certain we often deny having heard that nagging voice in the back of our heads asking us to check what we believe to have been told to do, only because we didn’t want to appear stupid, overly inquisitive, interrupting the boss too often, or losing time over this. At the end of the day, that is a just another type of responsibility to be aware of.
Why is it so hard to own up?
I believe we hesitate to own up to mistakes for a whole series of reasons, depending on our role and what’s ultimately at stake. The kind of giant booboo that could cost you your job is hard to take responsibility for, but ultimately that’s what you need to do: if you don’t, you run a chance of being found out at any time. Even if you are able to suppress your sense of guilt, your subconscious will always be there to remind you of this mistake. Taking responsibility may not bring you much happiness in the short term, but it will take away the guilt, and the resulting consequences may not be half as horrible as you had imagined.
In the end, this is about facing our fears: fear of losing our job, fear of looking foolish, stupid or incompetent, fear of being suspected of misdoings, etc. However, what would the result be if you stick to your story and don’t own up? You might still end up without a job, and the suspicions might linger for a long time. As for looking foolish, stupid or incompetent, well: you made a mistake, that proves that you might be either of these things. Taking responsibility or not does not change any of that. This is something that you’ll have to deal with anyway…
At the end of the day, not owning up to your mistakes will lead to a lot of worries about being found out, continued self-delusion, maybe even a growing web of lies. All those will be replaced by a (probably temporary) reprimand, a level of respect for you for being truthful, and a chance to learn how to do it right. Yes, of course you’ll have to face the bigger consequences if your mistake has been a horrible one, but there’s nobody else to blame for those than yourself.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My mission: help clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.