I didn't do it!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In April, I attended an advertising workshop in Toronto with some marketing people. One of the girls in my group made a really interesting observation that's all too true. Her dad is South American and upon relocating to Canada, one of the first things he noticed in the workplace and in life in general is that nobody ever wants to admit when they've done something wrong.

Canadians do NOT want to take the blame for ANYTHING. I think he's 100% right. I don't know if it's a cultural thing, or a pacifist thing, but one thing is for sure: we don't want to admit when we've screwed up or made a mistake, even though we all do it, many of us effin' things up on a daily basis. Why??

"To err is human", but you wouldn't think so. In my area of work, there's a pretty high degree of being on the ball required. You are dealing with clients' budgets, brand, and reputation 24/7. That being said, even the most on-the-ball, organized, perfectionist can easily make an error: the wrong deadline gets passed along, the wrong specs are provided, the wrong logo is sent through, WHATEVER.

We all do it. Today I realized I had sent the wrong version of an ad to my client for feedback. Not a terribly earth-shattering deal--we had the correct ad on file, and it was just a matter of sending it along when the mistake was pointed out--but I felt horrible about it for about half the day. I worried that I looked like an incompetent idiot and I scolded myself for hours for making such a dumb error. And I found myself trying to rationalize why I'd sent the wrong PDF. "It's because it was end of day and I was trying to get it out the door before 5:00." "I didn't get the right version from creative." "The file name wasn't changed."

Then I had to give my head a shake.

It was a mistake, plain and simple. Whose fault was it? Mine. I didn't check the file before I sent the email. I was in a rush. Live and learn. At the end of the day the client was happy with the final product and the proper version got delivered to the publication. And now, I have a mental note to always double-check my attachments before hitting send. A simple "I'm sorry. I sent you the wrong PDF. Please have a look at this version instead" is all that was required to diffuse the situation. This is advertising, not brain surgery. No one is going to die because the wrong file gets sent through. Was it worth agonizing over all morning? No way! Why is it so hard to be OK with making a mistake and move on?

This sort of thing happens with projects all the time and people's first reaction is always to identify who screwed up, where something went wrong. Why do we gravitate toward who or what caused the mixup rather than focusing on how to remedy the issue first? Why doesn't anyone take ownership for the mistake?

Nobody wants to be known as the klutz or the scatterbrain or the person who doesn't have their shit together, but I think that acknowledging your mess-ups can go a long way in people's perceptions of you. If you can take ownership and work quickly to fix the problem, that shows initiative and trustworthiness, honesty that is valued and not necessarily in abundance these days, it seems. What's more important: providing solutions or pointing fingers?

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  1. Seriously terrific.

    I think there's a couple really interesting bits here. You say people don't want to own up to things, and you say that people just want to find out who's responsible (or, point the finger).

    So we don't want to own up to our own mistakes, but we damn well want to punish others for theirs.

    I think you're right. And I think that's pretty sad.

  2. I really really really agree with this.

    This ranks right up there with people who can't handle saying "I don't know". Why can't people admit when they don't know the answer to something? To me, it's much more admirable when someone says, "I'm not certain, but I'll find out for you."

    I've actually made it a personal mission of mine to own up when something is my fault, or that of my staff and to correct it as quickly as possible.

  3. Joel--It does seem that the first reaction most people have, when things go awry, is to find a scapegoat to put the blame on ASAP to avoid getting in trouble, when 99% of the time, it doesn't matter what happened. It just needs fixing!

    Jeff--the "I don't know" phobe is another good point, for sure! Nobody knows everything! And there's nothing wrong with that!

  4. When I mess-up, I (now) take the blame and do my best to remedy the situation. This wasn't always the case - but, as you noted Amy, worrying about the mistake (silly or not) is just wasted energy. From my experience people (clients/work associates) appreciate knowing how the mistake happened, that you have taken responsibility for it, and steps to avoid it happening again.

  5. Good topic for a post. Email attachments are one of my weaknesses, I hate to admit, because it seems so easy.

    But, I thought about it once and put myself in the recipient's shoes. They just want to get the right file, and it work fine and they like it. Think about it. you just want the thing, why care about the mistake if all works out in the end. Maybe we just worry too much, maybe we're afraid of being judged. But i've always found it's easy for people to forget about the problem because they appreciate the delivery. That, and i think excuses kinda smell.

  6. Joel -- Thank you! This has been a question of mine for a while. We all make mistakes, that's just a part of life. I don't understand why people feel that can't own up and it leaves me wondering:

    1. How are these people ever suppose to build trusting relationships with colleagues and clients? The truth will eventually come out.


    2. Why would someone punish themselves by not owning up to it? I know I feel bad when I make a mistake - why would someone want to prolong that feeling?

    Jeff -- Thanks for providing this link on Twitter.

  7. Oops, I made a mistake in my previous post. My first comment was suppose to be directed to Amy. Sorry about that Amy.

  8. this is a great post :) making a mistake at work will leave me reeling for the rest of the day. it'll drive me crazy-- why did I do that?!?! It makes you feel better temporarily to blame it on other things... but at the end of the day I feel like if you just own up to it and move on, that you'll feel better-- and learn more-- by the time the day is through.