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I work as a software engineer, in this situation we have two people, John and Mike, John is my boss and Mike my teammate.

John ordered me to do a task that I didn't know how to do exactly, the task is "business related" so this is not about my technical expertise, anyone in my situation would never know how to do it without an explanation.
My mistake here was that I didn't tell my boss this but instead I talked to my senior coworker Mike and he explained me how to do it without issue (and I kinda assumed that he knew how to do it).

The thing is that my boss became a bit upset (he hasn't the best tact or patience) asking me why I did the task like I did because it was completely wrong. In my situation, it caught me by surprise and I didn't want to blame Mike so I didn't say that he was the one that explained to me but instead I kinda said that I did it more or less by intuition. (A horrible approach because it made me look very bad.)

How could I have faced the same situation better, without blaming Mike?

PS: A few things to consider:

  1. I know that it was my mistake not to tell my boss at the moment that I needed help. The question is not about how to avoid the mistake but instead about how to react after.
  2. Mike is a good teammate that made a mistake. He didn't do it in purpose and he feels bad about it.
  • 2
    At what point in the development cycle did your boss become upset? – Erik Aug 21 at 7:31
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    at the end of the development when he did a code review. – Blazerg Aug 21 at 7:32
  • @Blazerg You may be too excited by the situation. Boss caught error before code got into production. – historystamp Aug 21 at 18:18
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    ok @NKCampbell I will say a bit to clarify what I mean with "business related" mistake. what I mean is that the code I made was 100% ok following the logic that Mike told me. but it wasn't the way that my boss wanted it to be done. Anyway, as I said in the question, the mistake itself is irrelevant to the question as it is more about professionalism and how to react after the mistake have been done. – Blazerg Aug 21 at 19:13

12 Answers 12

120

First, one thing no answer has pointed out yet is that you lied to John. This is a serious matter. No team can properly function when team members lie to their boss or their peers.

Actually, that may be hindering the team's productivity right now. John doesn't know that Mike didn't have knowledge about the task you were doing. What if Mike has been doing things wrong for a long time? I'm sure John, untactful as he may be, would appreciate if someone brought that up to him.

What you could have done

I think it's only natural to seek your senior's help when you are lost and don't know what to do, (though I'd probably would have checked with John first) but you definitely don't want to antagonize your senior over a honest mistake he did, so you gotta tell the truth while making sure you're not blaming him entirely, but taking responsibility and being open to correction. Maybe something along the lines of:

I didn't know how to do this task because of [this] and [that], so I asked Mike but it seems we didn't quite get it right either. I'm sorry I didn't double check with you first. How can I handle this situation properly in the future?

That would give Mike an opportunity of explaining himself while making clear that you accept responsibility and, even better, tells John that maybe there is a lack of knowledge in that area.

What you can (and should!) do now.

My concern here is that Mike and John didn't have a talk about this lack of knowledge, and there may be some errors that went undetected until now.

Again you don't want to antagonize Mike badmouthing him behind his back so I suggest you talk to him privately, tell him the facts, and let him raise that himself, with his own words. He'll appreciate that you are concerned about him and the business, and John will be informed about every detail of the project, as all project managers should be.

  • What if Mike doesn't (for obvious reasons) say anything to John? – bob Aug 21 at 16:49
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    What if John asked this question, because he knew Mike explained it wrong, and wanted to explain it properly to both people at once without a 'you've been doing it wrong all the time' type discussion :O – djsmiley2k - CoW Aug 21 at 17:17
  • I like this answer, but using the word "honestly" in the statement to the boss might mark it as a false statement. So many people use to start half truths that it's known as an indicator of a false statement. Just leave it out and it's a good statement. – computercarguy Aug 21 at 20:04
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    @bob Then I'd start looking for another job immediately while taking appropriate measures for a hostile coworker. But we're assuming good faith here. – David DPG Aug 22 at 7:20
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    I commonly hear the phrase "After a discussion with X, it was my understanding that..." or "I was under the impression that...". Personally I like the phrasing because is doesn't necessarily implicate the other person as being in the wrong, because they might not be. It's my experience that people can also misunderstand what somebody else means, especially if that person is a senior who just takes for granted their own understanding and the junior doesn't clarify what they mean. I concur that you should speak to Mike as well, making sure not to use any accusatory language. – DoctorPenguin Aug 22 at 14:17
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You can say, without blaming Mike, that you sought help from Mike and implemented what you understood his instructions to be to the best of your ability. Say what you thought Mike's instructions were. Say you are not sure whether

  1. You misinterpreted Mike's instructions.
  2. You understood Mike's instructions correctly, but implemented them incorrectly.
  3. You understood and implemented Mike's instructions correctly, but those instructions were not proper.

Then try to get to the truth as a team to make sure it doesn't happen again.

  • 1
    I would do it this way, but I wouldn't use Mike's name... Rather I would just say "I asked someone" or "I asked some other people" or anything along those lines. And then suggest a task to document the procedure, so that the official, correct version is written down and everyone can be on the same page--ideally you would be the one creating the document, but if you're still not sure of the correct procedure then you might need to pair with someone. – user3067860 Aug 21 at 19:44
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    @user3067860 I think it is important to use Mike's name, and involve him in the conversation. If it turns out to be option 1 or 2, he can give his perspective and hopefully communication will be more clear in the future. If it is option 3, everyone needs to know. – Steven Gubkin Aug 22 at 12:11
  • I disagree, even if it is option 1 or 2 (either an OP problem understanding or a Mike problem explaining) it's likely that the real problem spreads out into the team. If a senior coworker felt comfortable explaining it, and a new team member felt like they understood enough to implement, and it still was not right, it's likely that it's a difficult, tricky topic to explain. It's not impossible that if the OP had asked some different coworker they still would have gone wrong. Which would go straight back to documenting this so that future new people can get the correct, official version. – user3067860 Aug 22 at 17:04
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    @user3067860 I would just say "I asked someone" - The immediate response of every half-decent manager: "You asked who?". At that point you still need to reveal a name, only the manager now thinks you might be trying to lie to dodge blame, because the lack of details is one way to spot lies. – Peter Aug 23 at 15:51
  • @Peter I'm not claiming all of my managers are great, but I have many times brought up a problem without naming a specific individual without being asked who, exactly, I meant. Of course it's context sensitive, if someone was deliberately doing something wrong that would be different. But there's more acknowledgement in IT now that mistakes do happen to everyone and the focus should be on improving processes to prevent mistakes for the whole team, rather than focusing on the individual who made the mistake. – user3067860 Aug 23 at 18:42
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Your task, your mistake

You needed help and asked Mike who genuinely provided what he thought what was best for a task assigned to you. A good question you might ask yourself : what good can come out of blaming Mike?

In my opinion, badmouthing Mike to your boss might only give a poor image of yourself. As you said yourself, John 'hasn't the best tact or patience', then him being upset is not something you should feel miserable for. Thus, no big deal of who should take the blame.

Take action so that it does not happen again

Not knowing exactly how to proceed, you asked your senior coworker what was the best pratice. He genuinely provided what he thought was a good solution, yet John was not happy with the action you undertook.

Now, depending on wether you can find some documentation explaining how to deal with said task, I would tell John something along the lines of :

Hey John,

Sorry again for my mistake about task X.
Do you know where I could find documentation about how to handle it properly next time?

If John answers that you should ask Mike, only then you can tell him that you did exactly this, not to blame Mike, but to explain that some updates about how to proceed are required because both you and Mike are unsure about this.

I would then tell John that you are going to set up a written procedure according to how John expects the task to be handled so that it doesn't happen again.


EDIT :

How could I face the same situation better, without blaming Mike?

  1. Make an apology to John for your mistake;
  2. Explain you were unsure about how to procede and did what appeared to you as the best solution;
  3. ask him in case of doubt who should be asked for help (him, Mike, or somebody else?).

EDIT2 :

Considering

I covered Mike and I apologize for the mistake, saying that I did it without being sure. that made me look really bad because it seems that I didn't ask anybody when I had doubts, it looked that I am not a team player

I would then focus more on

My mistake here was that I didn't tell my boss this but instead I talked to my senior coworker Mike

When facing an upset John, I would say

I am really sorry John.
When you tasked me on X, I soon realised I had doubts on how to proceed. Instead of speaking them up to you, I went to see Mike who kindly advised me to do XYZ.

My fault, next time if any doubt I will ask you , if that's okay with you.

That way you admit your own mistakes (not asking straight for help to John) and still prove your course of action was senseful nonetheless.

One should not badmouth coworkers as it can come back to bite you ; however, if it appears that Mike is duly expected by John to know the correct procedure and made a mistake, that's on him.

To smoothen things a bit, I would put emphaze on something like

we could use updates about how to proceed

so that you do not put blame on Mike, but ask for ways to improve for both of you.

  • 1
    Great first answer! The OP could also address Mike to quietly reassure him that he (Mike) isn't wearing this foul-up, and to help Mike avoid any similar issue. After all, what if Mike had been given the task? By taking responsibility, the OP will rise in the estimation of both Mike AND John. I agree with your answer whole-heartedly. Feel free to steal from this comment if you wish. – Haakon Dahl Aug 21 at 8:27
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    I agree that I shouldn't (and I don't want to blame Mike) for my mistake but what should have I done when my boss asked me? because I also think that asking my senior worker was the "natural thing to do" as there is no documentation. also I don't believe that taking action so ir does not happen again is possible because shit happens, it is not predectible and what I want to know is the best approach to take with my manager after the mistake have been made. – Blazerg Aug 21 at 8:32
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    this is a nice answer but it is not the one I am looking for. on your EDIT, consider that what you are saying is exactly what I did, I covered Mike and I apologize for the mistake, saying that I did it without being sure. that made me look really bad because it seems that I didn't ask anybody when I had doubts, it looked that I am not a team player when I did ask to Mike who gave me security on his answer. – Blazerg Aug 21 at 9:25
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    Saying that the OP used Mike as a resource for their solution isn't blaming him, it's showing that even with help from a teammate, the solution is still wrong. There's the possibility that the OP simply didn't code it the same way as the manager wanted, even though it gave the same results. I've been yelled at on SE/SO for using the wrong loop (a for instead of foreach or map), so it's entirely possible neither the OP or Mike are actually wrong, it's just the manager overreacting, so there may not really be any blame to be had. – computercarguy Aug 21 at 20:09
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Blame doesn't have to belong to one person, it can be shared.

It's not necessarily a mistake to get help from a coworker rather than you boss, unless your boss has given you explicit instructions to go to him for help. Especially if Mike is senior to you.

If Mike is aware of the misappropriated blame, then the ball is really in his court. The decent thing for him to do would be to speak to your boss and set the record straight.

In the future, the best approach is to say you worked with a co-worker on something if that's what happened. This isn't about framing anyone, this is about your boss being able to help all members of the team understand how they can get help when they are unsure. After all, Mike's misunderstanding may partially invalidate some work that he has done in the area, and it may need to be revisited.

  • Good point, maybe by trying to "protect" my colleague I am blinding my boss to a potential mistake that Mike could have made before (but Mike already knows now that he did a mistake because I talked to him) – Blazerg Aug 21 at 8:35
  • Yep. The ball is in Mike's court now. – Gregory Currie Aug 21 at 8:42
1

Explicitly blaming for something under your responsibility usually does not look good.

However, I suggest explaining to your boss your chain of thought. Since you were not sure how to perform said task, you asked Mike's advice. You both agreed that the task should be done like you did it. Next time if there is anything unclear you will ask your boss for specs.

  • yes but in this case as it is a "business task" I didn't exactly agreed to do it that way. It is something that the company decided and I was told by my senior colleague how to do it. – Blazerg Aug 21 at 8:38
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Go ask your boss if you can make it right and do it over the way he would want it to be done, and with help from him. Explain that the first time you sought help from your coworker and unfortunately it didn't work and that maybe it was more complex than you first thought. Then make it right by doing the project the way the boss-man wants (or not doing it if that's what he decides). Don't say "BUT COWORKER IS ACTUALLY THE PROBLEM", just quietly acknowledge that you did seek help, and that it didn't work but you're willing to try again with more guidance.

  • As I mentioned in a comment on another answer, it might be that the solution is correct, just not in the same way as the manager expected. Getting guidance on how to make a complex solution simpler or a long process faster might be what the manager means, rather than the code producing the wrong results. Mentioning Mike as a resource shouldn't be a problem and, as you said, asking for guidance from the manager should be the focus. – computercarguy Aug 21 at 20:13
  • I agree, this method should work for both situations. – Stun Brick Aug 22 at 12:05
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Hummm... It sounds like your manager has created an unhealthy environment. You got off on the wrong foot, but he's already made you nervous about asking questions or not knowing what to do. Stop blaming yourself. Obviously you can't relax and talk to this manager - so you're in a loop where you get more anxious thinking about the next time, and will probably freeze up in the same way the next time.

Maybe it's time to look for a new job, or try to deal with what is going on with this manager.

Do you have strategies to deal with him? - for example "You make me feel uncomfortable when you treat me this way..." or "When you speak to me like this... I feel as if I've upset you. I realize you are busy and probably don't mean to make that impression but it makes me tense and I feel like I can't get your support when I need it."

Or maybe talk to your HR department about him?

Mistakes are a normal part of work and if you're afraid to make mistakes around this manager, you need to do something about the relationship.

  • indeed, you are rigth and the manager behaviour is part of the problem. he is not a bad person, he is an awesome developer that I admire a lot and I don't have personal problems with him either but his behaviours againts mistakes is very agressive (in a way that he make's me feel bad about the fact that I didn't know the answer already) and this is why we (me and my teammates) avoid to ask him for help. – Blazerg Aug 22 at 7:05
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The obvious first step would be to talk to your senior co-worker Mike. Three possible outcomes: He’ll throw you under the bus, he’ll share responsibility, or the best possibility is that he is senior enough to stand up to the bullying boss and tell him that the boss didn’t give you good instructions, that his personality means people ask Mike instead of the boss, and if that causes problems, it’s only the boss who is to blame.

Does Mike say himself that he made a mistake? I somehow doubt it.

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    he didn't say anything. Furthermore, I did not say in the question but Mike was close to me when the boss jeered me. so Mike already knows everything and he apologized to me rigth after but indeed, he could have said something and he didn't. – Blazerg Aug 22 at 7:51
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I have a different position on this subject than most the other answers I see here. Your boss, John, should know your technical skill set as well as your knowledge of the business. What I always do, and John should have too, is to make sure you always know it's OK to say (I'm not sure how that works). John should also, always, make it very easy for you to back out of this task if there is any uncertainty on your part. I can't think of a any situation where I would task someone with something they can't or don't know how to do. I would never do this to anyone, not even someone I wished would quite the company and John should not have done this to you either.

I think you should confront John and tell him very directly that, moving forward you expect to him be more in-touch with what folks know there. Remind him that you all are team and that there needs to be good positive two way communication

  • I agree, one of the problems was that John does not have the skill as a manager to make people understand exactly what is he ordering you to do. – Blazerg Aug 29 at 11:05
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My take on this and what I would do is accept that it is my mistake. Here's why:

You didn't know how to do it, so you asked Mike. This is the same as you don't know what to do so you googled it. Mike gave you he answer he knew and possibly, probably would have done it wrong too if the task was given to him. Mike gave it his best. End of story.

What I would have done from the start?

Tell my boss I didn't know how. If he still chooses me, I'll work with him and that means build a bit then get feedback from him.

I get why you're asking this question and it's still not too late to own it up. Regardless, whether you should blame Mike or not, don't do it. If you ask people questions and blame them when it goes wrong, eventually no one will answer your questions anymore.

If I you've choose option A and Mike chose B and B ended up being wrong then it's Mike's fault. But this isn't the case. So go on and claim the responsibility, it was yours in the first place.

0

The most important thing here is that despite the ill-direction given from a Senior, you made a mistake. Period.

We have all been there so it's not the end of the world, but not voicing your concerns with the person giving you the direction is just bad practice in terms of communication.

If someone asks you to do something, talk to that person and let THEM determine who to guide you.

This is for 3 reasons:

  1. You give them the responsibility, so they are forced to accept that and assess who THEY trust to do things the way THEY want them done.

  2. By extension of the first point, you aren't then taking responsibility for a situation that you couldn't possibly understand. Doing what you did was just plain irresponsible.

  3. Communication lines need to be simple, direct, uncomplicated. If you start a game of chinese whispers then things will inevitably become quite messy, very quickly.

EDIT: fourth reason. By involving your Senior, if things go wrong you have to throw him under the proverbial bus. This will be complicated. If you want, you can say that you went to someone else for guidance, when he asks who just say "I'd rather not expose them to the consequences of my mistake". Which is true, despite their lack of competence.

WHAT TO DO NOW?

Don't fret. We all do dumb things from time to time and we were all young once. Be honest, don't make excuses, take responsibility for YOUR actions and leave the rest up to your boss.

The first thing you should do is say "ok Boss, I messed up here by not coming to you with my lack of understanding, I instead went to this person and I wrongly assumed it was correct information. I apologize, it won't happen again".

Then never do it again. In the workplace, and in life, make moves that foster other people's trust in your word. Your word needs to be air-tight.

Good luck!

0

I actually disagree with a lot of the sentiments here. The failure isn't in the advice Mike gave - it's in your understanding of the task requirements and your ability to effectively convey those requirements when seeking help. It's likely a fair assumption that the advice Mike gave you was good for his understanding of the requirements as explained to him. Google is an amazing tool but if you don't ask it the right questions, the answer you get back might not be relevant to your situation.

The correct approach here is to address your misunderstanding of the requirements. Find out how you arrived at the conclusions you did, why those conclusions differed from John's expectations and figure out what you can do to make sure it doesn't happen again. This way, it doesn't matter that the solution idea ultimately came from Mike; he's absolved of blame entirely because you didn't explain the problem to him correctly when seeking help.

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