Own Up to Your Mistakes: The Best Policy?

We all make mistakes – there’s nothing special in our ability to make errors.  Everyone does it.  The only differentiating factor is how we handle the aftermath of a mistake: do you take full ownership, or find ways to place blame instead?  From childhood, it seems we were rewarded for deflecting blame – if we could make a good excuse or push the mistake onto a sibling, we were off the hook.  No punishment.  The blame went somewhere else and stayed there.  As it turns out, however, we were taught the wrong lesson.  Once you get past childhood, it’s honesty and taking ownership of your errors that pays off big-time.  I’m not just talking about emotional payoff, either: taking responsibility for your errors will retain more clients, prevent costly customer service expenses, and keep your job longer.

Learning from mistakes

Mistakes are expensive.  Deflecting blame or creating excuses creates a lie, somewhere in your mind, that the mistake isn’t really your fault, even though it is.  No matter what, that error is going to cost you – you’ll lose clients, money, time, etc.  Take the fault on yourself, reflect on the mistake, and own it, because you’ve already paid for it, so you might as well learn something.

Working Together

Here’s a believable scenario: you told a client that a box of Widgets would ship on Wednesday, and sure enough, they didn’t ship until Thursday, because you forgot to put the order in on time. You’re one day late. You could blame it on the shipping system, or on your software – the client might believe any of these. But none of these strengthen your relationship with the client – she’s thinking “OK, so your shipping department messed up. I’ll let it slide. Now what?” That’s the best you can hope for – “I’ll let it slide.”  That’s not forgiveness, and it’s certainly not working together.  An honest explanation, with a real apology, and full culpability, however, will make both of you see eye to eye.  If you say “I’m genuinely sorry, but your order didn’t ship on time, and it’s my fault – I didn’t get the order in on time – this has probably messed you up big-time.  What can I do to help?”….you’ve immediately set the tone for the conversation.  You’ve accepted fault.  In my experience, the person on the receiving end will actually defend you for you.  What else are they going to do?  Jump on and lambaste you, even though you’re already doing the job for them?  By owning your mistake, you’ve set a new tone of asking forgiveness and wanting to work with the person – not against them via deception.  This is how you keep clients, and prevent costly customer service claims – nobody has ever stuck with a company or sales rep because they had great excuses for their mistakes – but I have definitely stuck with companies, even after massive errors, because they’ve offered genuine apologies and owned their mistakes.  How about you – which do you prefer – genuine apologies, or really good excuses?  Start offering your clients the same thing you want.

A Challenge

I started adopting this habit about 8 years ago, after reading a great book that talked about owning up to your mistakes – it forever changed my ability to learn from my mistakes, and made my relationships better across the board.  But it is a habit.  There’s always that temptation to dodge responsibility, place blame somewhere else, or make an excuse.  I’d like to challenge you to try this out just once – I’m convinced that your experience will lead you to forever approach mistakes and apologies differently….not just because you’ll “feel better” – but because you’ll actually get better results from the people around you.  Next time you make a mistake and have the knee-jerk reaction to just push off the blame, bravely accept the fault to those who were affected.  Don’t be shy with it.  The more heartily you can accept your fault and apologize, the better it will go.


Since writing this post, I’ve become hyper-aware of companies who have done a great job at this. Here’s a fantastic example by Kickstarter – they made some poor decisions, owned up to it publicly, and the customer response in the comments speaks to the results you can expect by doing the same: Kickstarter Apology