If your job involves anything complex or difficult, at some point, something will go wrong. It might be that an action has unforeseen consequences. It might be that you were aware your plan had a low probability of success. You might even make a mistake in the way you execute something. It’s human nature.
But in these instances, there’s a strong tendency to try to avoid blame. You might cover up what you did, try to shift responsibility to someone else, or just kick the can down the road, hoping that the mistake won’t be noticed.
Even though that may be easier in the short-term, here are three good reasons why you should always admit what you have done wrong and work to fix any problems that your actions caused.
The costs of mistakes compound over time
No matter how bad the initial consequences of an error are, the costs continue to mount until steps are taken to fix the problem—and those steps won’t start until you let people know what happened. That is why you need to let people know as soon as you realize that there is a problem.
When you report what went wrong, it is important to tell the whole truth. There is a tendency to want to find ways to make the mistake seem less bad than it was. You might want to omit details of what you did or to divert people’s attention from some of the consequences.
Just come out and talk about the entire event in detail. What did you do? What did you say? Who was involved? The more information that the team has about what happened, the better positioned they are to minimize the damage.
After that, get involved in the process of fixing the problem. Even if someone more experienced needs to take the lead, you should observe what is required to fix the problem.
The consequences for you are smaller
Another reason people hide what they have done is that they fear the consequences of their actions. If you do something wrong, you may get punished for it.
Not revealing an error as quickly as possible, though, adds an extra wrong on top of the first one. You delay the consequences you may face, but you do not eliminate them.
In leadership roles, it is particularly important to get out ahead of mistakes. Strong leaders have to walk the line between committing to difficult courses of action whose benefits may not be seen for some time and the willingness to admit quickly when something has been done wrong or badly and needs to be rethought or approached in a different way. As soon as it is clear that a mistake has been made, though, leaders must admit the mistake, describe how it will be fixed, and explain what steps are being taken to ensure an error like this does not happen again.
You create trust
The paradox of admitting mistakes quickly is that people fear that these admissions will reduce other people’s trust in their ability. This belief assumes that trust is based on having a perfect record.
When you are given a responsibility, people are hoping that you will help them to achieve a desired outcome. Ideally, that will happen without any setbacks. But, it is more important that a project reach its goal than that it happen with no mistakes. By being honest about errors, you increase the chance that a project succeeds, and that makes you more trustworthy.
This is a particularly important lesson for people who are new in the workplace. Supervisors want to know which people require constant oversight and which ones will be able to work independently. The more often you ask questions when you’re confused and step forward to take responsibility for mistakes you make, the faster you achieve that independence, because your supervisor will know that nothing is going to go wrong that they won’t hear about before it is too late.