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How should an employee respond when being questioned by management about a mistake they have made? What is the best way to do so in a positive manner?

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    That one is how to deal with the aftermath, this one is how to approach it. Different animal. – Old_Lamplighter Mar 17 '16 at 14:02
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The best way to do this is if you can acknowledge the error, demonstrate that you know what you did wrong and illustrate what you can do in the future to prevent it from happening again.

"I apologize for my error. I was overwhelmed and did not seek help, and this made me careless. I have already contacted those affected and am correcting the mistake now. In the future, I will be more aware of my limits and seek help if the workload becomes too backlogged for me to take it on."

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If I make a mistake, I don't deny it and if it is very severe, I would apologise, but try and keep it professional. Everyone makes a mistake sometimes, it's only human, but you're right you shouldn't blame it on someone else if it is your mistake. Something along the lines of:

I made a mistake and I (want to) apologise for the inconvenience / fall-out. I will do my absolute best to make sure it doesn't happen again.

I think I would say something like that. Acknowledge it and let them know it won't happen again on your watch

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    Did you mean "I wouldn't make excuses"? – John Mar 17 '16 at 10:53
  • @JJChivers no.. I mean I would make excuses, it's my fault after all. But I would make it a professional excuse, not begging for forgiveness or anything ;) – Sabine Mar 17 '16 at 10:56
  • Ok, used as a verb, excuses: seek to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault or offence); try to justify. You should not be looking to justify your mistake or reduce blame. Giving excuses, however professional, usually leads to annoying the person you are talking to. Could you give a example of a "professional" excuse? – John Mar 17 '16 at 11:08
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    @JJChivers oh i'm sorry :) Language thing, I guess. What I mean is I would apologize. I will edit – Sabine Mar 17 '16 at 12:18
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Provided you have the time to explain, follow the following method for explaining the mistake positively. I have detailed this with examples.

  • What lead you up to the mistake? I was sorting out visitor passes
  • What were you doing? I was writing down the customers name on their tag for a visit.
  • What did you do wrong? I wrote down my name instead of theirs
  • What was the impact? The customer got annoyed and I had to re-do their badge, using company time and resources.
  • Why did you make a mistake? I was trying to crack a joke whilst writing. (don't over explain this bit, be honest and truthful)
  • How are you not going to repeat this mistake? When interacting with customers I will focus on the tasks at hand and be as professional as possible

If you can think up a good acronym for this that may be helpful!

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If the problem is non-critical and easily fixed, then that is best case scenario, and it may be possible to fix and move on. But if not:

Don't focus on spinning it in a positive way. Be direct, take ownership of the mistake, and don't make excuses. Get in front of the story. Lead with your thesis -- what you did wrong, and then explain / give details after. Apologize last -- after you admit what you did wrong, not before

Example (wrong way)

I'm so, so sorry! I'll never do it again. I was super busy, and I was distracted by the phone ringing and was trying to answer a really important email with an important request from the director, and I may have accidentally deleted 100 records from the sales table in the production database. But we can fix it! I will search the backups for a solution!

This example is wrong because you are apologizing first -- before you have even told them what you are apologizing for. It makes you look small and more worried about protecting your image than fixing the problem. Wrong message to send.

Example (Right Way)

Boss, I have something I need to talk to you about. I just accidentally deleted 100 sales records from the customer database. I understand the gravity of my mistake. I was distracted by an incoming call and email, but I should not have been modifying data in production, especially when my attention was divided. It is entirely my fault.

I'm on my way to check the backups to see if I can recover the data, but I thought I should let you know immediately. I am so, so sorry. I feel awful. Again, entirely my fault. I understand if you are upset with me. Most of all I just want to make this right.

After checking the backups and putting this right, I will circle back and we can talk about what I did wrong.

This is much better on so many levels. If you were my employee and came to me with this tone, I might be pissed about the screw up, but you've given me critical information about the problem, you've taken ownership, and have taken a tone of strength even in your moment of embarrassment, reassuring me that we are on the same team and we are going to work together to solve the problem.

Either way, you may get into trouble. But one makes you look like a weasel, and the other let's me know I can count on you to put the team before your own petty personal image. I am more likely to go easier on example #2.

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First you admit to the mistake. trying to blame others is usually a bad thing at this point. Next you say what you are doing right now to mitigate the mistake or what actions need to happen to fix it. Show you have a plan for fixing it.

Finally talk about what you have learned and how you are going to prevent the problem from happening in the future.

Finally, it usually goes over better if you admit the mistake before management finds it calls you in to explain. When I make a mistake (we all do, I try to go to my boss first with the problem, tell him what happened and what is being done to fix or what he needs to do that I can't do (sometimes fixes involves server rights I might not have for instance)to fix it. Bosses hate to be blindsided. By going to them first, you can prevent them from looking bad to their managers when the mistake is brought down from above. It is almost always best if the mistake is being fixed before you start getting customer complaints or messages from senior managers.

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