If there’s one aspect of succeeding in the workplace where you definitely don’t need expert advice, it’s what to do when you screw up. Heck, you could teach a college course on how to tell your boss you’ve screwed the pooch, the kitty, the budgie and the gerbil.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t read, “11 Tips for Telling Your Boss You Screwed up,” a recent Jacquelyn Smith and Rachel Gillett post on the Business Insider website. After all, it’s always interesting to get the opinions of amateurs.
One such tyro is Mary Hladio, a “workplace expert.”
“When we make a mistake,” Hladio says, “we experience a cognitive dissonance, which is a form of mental discomfort and tension.” This is why the authors suggest that “no matter how big or small, no one wants to admit when they’ve screwed up, especially at work.”
This could be true if you are the sort of person who has sufficient cognition to let it go dissonant — certainly not you. And I suppose a person could feel reluctant to confess their stumbles and bumbles if they saw themselves as a capable, productive member of the team. Again, certainly not you.
In fact, the authors are totally wrong when they talk about how “the natural tendency is to cover up a mistake to prevent ourselves from tarnishing our reputations and losing credibility.” You could load your credibility on the back of a flea and still have room to throw on the respect of your co-workers, the trust of your supervisors, and the suspicions of the office manager. (Yes, somebody did steal six-dozen Sharpies from the supply cabinet to sell on eBay, but it’s just a coincidence that the listing had your email address).
Still, if you decide to confess your screw-ups, the 11 tips could be useful, if only in showing you what not to do.
Like “take a quick step back and breathe.” The idea here is that you want a clear head before you put your head on the corporate chopping block. This makes no sense. When you do commit a workplace boo-boo, run immediately to your manager and confess. She’ll be so deliriously happy that you actually did some work, she’ll never blame you for the fact that the little work you did caused a major meltdown.
If you do find yourself on bended knee before your manager, what are you supposed to say? “Calculate the potential damage of your mistake before the conversation,” says another workplace expert, Skip Weisman. “When you fully assess what went wrong and the potential consequences, it’ll show your boss that you care and want to learn from the mistake.”
Well, possibly. It could also show the boss that you are not the harmless goof-off he always thought, but a person who, no matter how inept, could actually cause some damage.
If you do decide to talk consequences, make sure they’re dire.
It’s not enough to say that you missed a deadline. Explain that because of your screwup, the shipment to the company’s biggest client will be delayed, forcing the client to start ordering from your biggest competitor, pushing the company into Chapter 11, and forcing your manager’s children to quit their prestigious Ivy League colleges to become hobos or drug addicts or worse, business humor columnists.
By the time the sucker gets lost in your fantasy of inevitable doom he’ll never remember that you started it all.
Regrettably, “be direct,” the third and last of the 11 tips that we’ll have time to cover today. (Hey, I screwed up! What are you going to do, shoot me?) The strategy here is, “No buffering. No euphemism. No misdirection. Talking around your boss will just annoy your boss even more.”
This presumes that there is a problem with annoying your boss. With all the experience you have screwing up, you should be able to annoy your boss so completely that he blows a blood vessel and is rushed to the hospital before he can ream you out or boot you out.
Of course, there are more humane ways to ruin your supervisor’s day.
Line up the entire management team and announce, “Everyone here who thinks they’ve gotten through this day without an employee making a major screwup, step forward.”
To which you quickly add, “Not so fast, boss.”
Good idea? I think so. Will it work? I don’t know. But, let’s think positive. At least, you haven’t screwed up telling your boss you screwed up.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at email@example.com.