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Leadership

How To Explain Your Screw-Up Without Making Excuses

Excuses, explanations, apologies—they're all different things. Here's when (and how) to use each of them the next time you mess up at work.

How To Explain Your Screw-Up Without Making Excuses

[Photo: David Madison/Getty Images]

You just dropped the ball. But, here’s the thing you want everybody to know: It absolutely wasn’t all your fault.

Nope, those good-for-nothing folks in the marketing department were late in getting you the information you desperately needed. Or something weird happened with your calendar app and all of your dates got mixed up. Your alarm didn’t go off. You didn’t sleep well the night before. The sun was in your eyes. Whatever happened, it absolutely wasn’t your doing that caused this misstep.

Sound familiar? We’ve all spit out excuses in the attempt to save face and shift blame, even if we know better.

But, every now and then, you run across those situations when you feel like added clarification is absolutely justifiable—however, you’d like to provide that necessary context in a way that doesn’t make it sound like you’re offering a flat-out alibi.

So, is there a way you can walk the dangerously fine line between explanation and excuse? Turns out, there is! Here’s how you can provide that needed background information you’re so eager to share—without any of those classic, "The dog ate my homework!" connotations.

1. Determine If It’s Necessary

Before we get into exactly how to navigate these murky waters, you need to take a good, hard, and honest look at yourself to determine if an explanation is really necessary—or if you’re only trying to sugarcoat a good old-fashioned excuse.

Ask yourself this: What impact does sharing this have on the final outcome? Will failing to voice that information result in your team moving forward incorrectly on a project? Or will speaking up just serve to shift the spotlight away from your shortcoming and make you feel indemnified?

If you’re falling into that latter camp, then it’s not really an explanation you’re looking to provide—you’re still only trying to avoid responsibility. If you can’t pinpoint one solid reason why one is warranted, then you’re usually better off keeping your lips zipped altogether.

2. Avoid Qualifiers

Alright, so you’ve decided that you absolutely need to chime in with some added clarification about what exactly caused you to come up short. This information is important, and you think your boss or your team needs to be looped in on it.

Now what? Before diving in with the details of what exactly happened, you’re going to want to pay close attention to how you kickstart your spiel.

That means staying far, far away from qualifiers. Prefacing your explanation with things like, "I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses, but . . ." or even a seemingly innocent, "Just so you know . . ." ultimately send the wrong message.

So, do your best to stop them from flying out of your mouth and instead jump right in with the need-to-know, nitty-gritty information that’s relevant and important to the other people involved.

3. Apologize

"Wait, what?" you’re likely thinking to yourself now, with a repulsed look on your face, "Apologize? I thought we already determined that this wasn’t my fault!"

I get it—saying that you’re sorry seems counterintuitive. But, regardless of what exactly happened to get you to this point, the moral of the story still remains the same: You came up short on your end of the deal. Things didn’t go according to plan, and you weren’t able to deliver what was expected of you—for whatever reason.

Like it or not, that warrants an apology. This doesn’t need to be anything complex. Even something like, "I’m sorry that I’m a day late in submitting this report" before providing the added background information demonstrates that you accept responsibility for your role in the situation—even if there were other factors contributing to your tardiness.

Trust me, this key detail alone will work wonders in making it clear that you’re simply trying to provide added context for everyone, rather than attempting to point fingers or play the blame game.

4. Move On

No, I don’t mean this in a nonchalant, "Sorry this report is late—I accidentally burnt down the office when the copy machine set on fire. Whoops, no biggie! What’s for lunch?" sort of way. Of course, you don’t want to dwell on what happened—but you don’t want to forcefully jam it all under the rug and act like nothing went wrong either.

Instead, what I mean by "move on," is that you should be prepared to share exactly how you’ll move on from this experience. After all, what’s even better than someone who’s willing to acknowledge his mistakes? Someone who’s willing to learn from them.

Place your focus on explaining how you’ll avoid this same problem in the future. Using the example from above, this could look something like, "I’m sorry I’m a day late in submitting this report. I ran into some setbacks in getting the numbers I needed. I’m going to build in more of a schedule buffer the next time I work on one of these."

See how simple, brief, yet effective that was? In the end, it’s not really what happened that your boss or your team will care about—it’s how you react to it that matters.

You already know better than to spew out a bunch of lame excuses whenever the opportunity arises. But sometimes you find yourself in situations where providing reasoning is absolutely justified, yet you’re unsure how to offer it without it sounding like you’re trying to sneak away from any blame.

Put these four simple tips to work, and you’re sure to delicately tiptoe on that fine line.


This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.

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