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August 24, 2017

I Made a Mistake! Should I Keep Quiet?

Bruce Murray

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Everyone makes mistakes. And I'd bet that anyone who says they haven't made a mistake hasn't accomplished much in life.

An anonymous genius once said, "When it comes to our own mistakes we are very good lawyers. When it comes to others' mistakes we are very good judges." When we make a big mistake, some of our first thoughts might be, "Uh-oh! Who's going to find out about this?" Or, "Can I keep this hush?"

You might be lucky enough to get the chance to repair the damage before anyone finds out. But if your mistake is instantly noticeable or has immediate repercussions, your best bet is to own up to it, apologize, and do what you can to put it right.

Chances are, a swift admission of an honest mistake will incur no harsher penalty than a rap across the knuckles.

But if you try to hide a mistake, you're on the path toward a dangerous game of cover-up. And that's something that's been frowned upon for centuries! Confucius advised against this approach 2,500 years ago. He said, "Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes."

And Howard Baker, a former U.S. senator who investigated the Watergate scandal warned, "It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble."

If we do confess, does it have to be to the boss? Not necessarily, according to writer and PR expert Ashley Cobert. Writing for, she said, "Decide on the most appropriate person to tell. Approach that person with a clear, concise description of what happened. Tell her you'd appreciate her help and understand you're utilizing her valuable time. Apologize – once – and then present your solutions."

We at least cover ourselves against the possibility that our boss finds out and charges us with covering up our "crimes" if we can say that we've brought our mistakes to someone's attention.

Let's return to the stomach-churning moment when you realized that you'd made "a howler." TechRepublic writer Alan Norton's advice is to "take a few deep breaths," then ask yourself a few pertinent questions, such as:

  • Will I take unnecessary and dangerous risks to correct my mistake?
  • Am I in over my head and need help?
  • Can I fix this problem without making it worse?

Often, you'll be able to handle a mistake with no need to sound an alarm. But if you do step forward and take responsibility for it, career development expert Kayla Krupnick Walsh provides this final piece of advice: stay calm! She said, "Your demeanor will rub off on the person you are speaking with. If you are agitated, they will be too."

Have you had your own disaster dilemma? How did you decide what to do and what have you learned from the experience? Share your tips and queries in the comments section below.


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4 comments on “I Made a Mistake! Should I Keep Quiet?”

  1. I've always asked my staff to let me know straight away if a mistake has been made, that way I can help unravel and instigate damage control ASAP. The most damage is done when a mistake is being covered up or ignored. I learnt from experience, I've made mistakes and survived by being honest, working incredibly hard to fix them and taking the criticism on chin. It might be tough but integrity remains intact.

    1. Thanks Kathy for sharing your experiences. I agree that by speaking up quickly and then working to remedy the situation in addition to ensuring it does not happen again, your integrity remains intact! Yet for some people the old programming of fear kicks in hence why they want to keep it quiet.

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