One of my first real jobs was as the office manager of a small construction crew. Just temporary employment for one project. The boss of the crew had to learn using computers–it was the early nineties–and hired me to help him out. He was a lot more comfortable out on the site with his guys than in front of a screen.

I was hired for a position way above my experience and enjoyed the challenge.

Supposedly I was an expert on Excel, so I had to quickly teach myself the basic operations needed for calculating payroll.

I had a blast. The guys enjoyed bantering with me, my boss was happy he could do what he liked, and I was organizing the small office how I saw fit.

I also learned a lot about leadership.

Herr W. is still one of my role models.

One afternoon the client came into the office, furious. Nobody else was there but me, a 19-year old girl. The work of another crew was held back because of a careless mistake one of our workers had made. I had to radio Herr W. to come over quickly, while I tried to calm the client down.

He was mad! Once Herr W. got there, the guy started yelling, red in the face, threatening consequences.

Herr W. was just listening calmly, and did not even try to explain anything. “I’m taking full responsibility, you’re absolutely right, this should not have happened. I promise it won’t happen again,” was all he said.

The angry man got a little milder, but was demanding that “whoever screwed this up” get removed off the site.

Again, Herr W. didn’t react to insults and anger, just said that he would personally inspect the site, and that he’d go out there right now to fix the problem “so that work can be continued without further delay.”

And he did. He took his battered toolbox and went… the other guy, now more baffled than angry, trailing behind.

The worker who had made the mistake was sitting in the office later, when Herr W. came back in.

He was scared, and worried that he’d get fired. He started explaining what happened and how.

Our boss interrupted him: “I don’t want to hear excuses. I know mistakes happen. They shouldn’t happen twice. Just pay more attention. And now get back to work.”

I’ve thought back on this day many times in the last 15 years. Often when I was working for others, and made a mistake.

I hate making mistakes. I’m a perfectionist. But they happen, and then I feel so bad that I like to explain. I’m so scared of looking like an idiot. But I learned that nothing is gained with the explanation. It always looks like I’m blaming others, or circumstances.

So I try to keep it at, “Yes, I screwed up there. Totally. I feel so bad, please don’t think I take it lightly. Next time I will pay specific attention so it won’t happen again. Now how can we fix this?”

It takes practice. It’s hard. But admitting a mistake without explaining it, unless an explanation is being asked, is also empowering. It gets me back in control of the situation, and it completely removes the anger on the other side.

Often the victim of the mistake just needs to be listened to.

As a boss, the hardest thing is to not blame the employee who made a mistake. To not say, “Oh, yeah, that must have been the new girl.”

The mistakes of my people are my mistakes, and I have to fix them.

4 thoughts on “Excuses

  1. This is a very powerful story and I understand exactly what you mean. I also completely agree whenever we’re talking about situations where the wronged is not talking to the wrongdoer directly. Mistakes happen. Most of the time the reasons for the mistake, or how the mistake came about, don’t matter.
    I would go so far as to say this theorem only applies when the mistake in question was not your own, but you are rightfully (as the owner of a business, boss, etc.) held responsible by the wronged. In turn, when you are not the wronged party, but still responsible, like when talking to an employee.
    Whenever the wrongdoner and the wronged are directly talking to each other, this is a very two-edged-sword. For one reason: Emotions are involved on both sides of the conversation.
    For emotional balance, you need to know the reason or circumstance to be able to forgive – or move on. Thoughtlessness is rather easy to forgive, respectlessness or intention are not. If my life-partner said sorry for hurting me emotionally and didn’t explain himself, or worse, refused to explain himself, I would feel belittled and patronized. It would make me even madder, or disappoint me horribly.

    I think in these direct conversations, it’s much more important not to blame circumstance or someone else, but – like you said – to take full responsibility.
    If I’m late because my plane/train is late, it’s out of my power, I can’t be blamed. If I’m late, because I simply don’t care if someone is waiting for me and didn’t drive off im time, I can be blamed. I’m acting respectless. I need to own up to that. Makes a big difference to me, if I’m the wronged. Doesn’t it to you?

    • It does. And I agree. Including those instances would just have made the post too long.

      That’s why there’s responsibility for the victim of a mistake as well–they shouldn’t assume that the wrongdoer was careless, but they should ask first, before making accusations.

      In the example with the train being late, though… it’s easy enough to send a text to say “my train is late, I’m so very sorry. I know I promised to be home early today! It sucks! Next time I’ll calculate the possibility of a late train into the ETA I tell you.”

  2. That’s why I wrote plane/train. If on a plane, you can’t notify the other, on a train, you can – the person waiting can in both instances check if the transport is late, too. I just meant instances that are beyond your personal control, probably should not have included examples. As there are situations where one did everything right, kept to a generous schedule, planned with two hours to spare and still is late. The call is nice if it’s possible, it still won’t change being late.
    Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of instances where I personally hoped for everything being just right for me to just be on time – and I wasn’t, because things weren’t. Which are all my fuck-ups, and I’m happy to admit to it and take the blame. But there are other times, where I did everything right and the devil was a squirrel.
    My problem is that I’m late so often, that people don’t believe me when it’s really beyond my control. Which I find odd, since I freely admit to it being my fault every time it is. You’d think people would learn I’m at least trustworthy in the reasons I give. But noooooooo…. 😉

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