How to Admit Your Mistakes and Take Responsibility

When you’ve screwed up, the quickest way to move on is to admit what went wrong and apologize. When you do it right, it can even boost your reputation.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #559

Today we’re going to talk about what to do when you make a mistake.

Europa—cashier at Green Growing Things plant store by day, secret overlord of the Eastern Bloc by night—was addressing the leaders of the countries under her control. This wasn’t a mere pep talk; she was outlining her plans to use the next election cycle to begin her conquest of the West. Being pragmatic, she had Alex the camera person recording the event so the video could be edited to add peppy theme music and then uploaded to her private YouTube channel for viewing by any world leader who couldn’t make it to the speech in person.

At the end of her speech, she left the stage to thunderous applause. (Apparently, when you’re the person with nuclear codes for six different countries’ arsenals, applause is easy to come by.) She rushed over to Alex and asked, “How soon can you have this uploaded?”

Alex: It’s going to take a little while. Check back soon.

Europa: That’s fine. I can wait. I’m very excited.

Alex: It seems that there was a problem with the sound that they’re trying to fix.

Europa: Not a problem. I have the sound. Always be recording. You never know when a recording will come in handy. There’s a reason all these world leaders defer to me, if you get my drift.

Alex: Er, there was a focus problem with the camera, too …?

Europa: Maybe we can fix it. Give me the video and we’ll see.

And that’s when Alex admitted it. “Actually I didn’t turn on the camera. I saw the sound was going to be screwed up so I figured I’d give myself a little break.”

Oooh, boy. This was a mistake. A whopper of a mistake. 

Excuses Don’t Cut It

Not only was this a mistake, but Alex compounded it by giving excuses. No one ever got a testimonial that said, “You failed to deliver, but you gave such good excuses that I’d highly recommend you again.” Most of the time, excuses come across as just that—excuses. You aren’t going to build anyone’s trust, confidence, or respect with good excuses.

No one ever got a testimonial that said, You failed to deliver, but you gave such good excuses that I’d highly recommend you again.

Acknowledge Your Mistake With Confidence

When you’ve screwed up, trying to pretend you didn’t is just plain dumb. The sooner you acknowledge you screwed up, the more people will respect you, and the more you’ll be able to move past it. 

As long as you’re trying to pretend everything’s OK, everyone else who thinks you screwed up will, reasonably, double-down on their accusations. Their opinion of you will plummet. But once you’ve admitted the mistake, anyone who keeps bringing it up will simply look foolish.

For a great example of this, watch Oliver North’s testimony before Congress for the Iran-Contra scandal hearings in the 1980s. Toward the beginning of the hearing, he admitted that he had broken the law. The Congresspeople asking him questions weren’t prepared for that admission. They kept to their prepared questions, which hammered him about how he’d broken the law. He responded, “Yes, I already said that.” It made him look competent and professional. It made the panel questioning him look foolish.

When you acknowledge your mistake, people will respond based on cues from your nonverbal behavior. If you say “Oh my gosh, I made a mistake” and apologize in a way that implies you’re a horrible person and terribly ashamed, many people will happily step in and treat you like a horrible person and shame you.

If you admit a mistake with confidence, you can earn people’s respect.

If you say “Oh my gosh, I made a mistake” and then apologize in a tone that implies you’re a confident, competent person who happened to make a mistake, many people will take your lead and treat you like a competent person who made and admitted a mistake.

Indeed, if you admit a mistake with confidence, you can earn people’s respect.

The one exception to this acknowledgment is if there are legal implications to your mistake. In that case, check with your lawyer to plan your course of action.

Apologize Using an Apology Language

After you’ve admitted your mistake, apologize for it. Different people need to hear apologies different ways in order for it to be meaningful. (Check out episode 351 How to Use the Five Apology Languages. Just visit getitdoneguy.com/apology). The apology languages are feeling regret, taking responsibility, repenting, promising restitution, and requesting forgiveness. You can actually craft one apology that includes everything:

I’m sorry I pressed the red button that shut down the reactor core. It was my fault. I feel awful (and not just because of the radiation.) I’ll never play Truth or Dare in the reactor room again. I’ll grab a mop and get all this water cleaned up in a jiffy. Please forgive me.

This one apology includes all of the apology languages. It should make all your co-workers feel attended to, so they’ll probably even give you a working radiation suit for when you start mopping.

Learn, Even When it’s Not Your Fault

Sometimes your mistake really is caused by things outside your control. Your dog ate your client report. Rats invaded your home from a nearby construction site, so you couldn’t finish the design you were working on because you were too busy building barricades. Stuff like that.

In those cases, if you’ve built up enough past goodwill, you can explain and people may cut you some slack. If you often make excuses, even if they’re all real, you’ll trash your reputation. To stay on the safe side, consider treating issues beyond your control as personal mistakes and then letting everyone else tell you it’s OK. 

If you often make excuses, even if they’re all real, you’ll trash your reputation.

For me, it’s been a winning strategy to confidently take the blame for everything and apologize. Because I’m pretty dependable most of the time, people are quick to leap to my defense when they don’t believe something was my fault.

Either way, if something’s not your fault, you can still think about future contingency plans. Next time, heed the rat warnings. Don’t print the paper copies of your client report on beef-flavored paper. (Why did you do that in the first place?)

If only Alex had come forth and said “I’m sorry for turning off the video. I feel awful. It was my fault. In the future, I’ll check to make sure that’s the right decision. For now, I’ve set up a green screen so we can re-record your speech. Please forgive me.” Alex didn’t. Alex made excuses. Europa is not fond of excuses. She handed Alex the mop and pointed towards the flooded reactor. And in a most magnanimous gesture, she even gave Alex a working radiation suit.


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About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.