Workplace Navigator: You Made a Mistake. Should You Explain?

Workplace Navigator: You Made a Mistake. Should You Explain?

Question: I teach at a university. I recently missed the deadline for ordering textbooks and materials for a new class I was asked to teach on short notice. In doing so, I created extra work for a lot of colleagues, and news of my infraction was pushed up the managerial ladder as approval was sought for my requests from my department head, dean and others. I am deservedly in the doghouse. I apologized and promised never to do this again. Now I’m trying to be as low-maintenance as possible and just move forward.

However, in sorting everything out, I learned of a policy I was not aware of before, which was part of the reason for my mistake. My department is following practices that might need to be updated and clarified for everyone so we can comply with this policy when we’re ordering books. But when I spoke with a senior administrative staffer about my confusion around this policy, her tone suggested that I was wasting her time. I’m also concerned that bringing this up will simply reveal more of my ignorance about something that perhaps everyone else already knows. Should I mention this to my boss now, or wait and report the new information closer to the next deadline?

A: So you’ve made the kind of mistake that created needless work for people downstream and drew the eye of higher-ups. The good news: You’ve apologized, and you’re investigating how it happened so you can keep it from happening again — as anyone in your situation should.

But after a certain point, explanations exasperate. Right now, sharing what you’ve just learned about policy won’t make a stressed-out staffer’s life any easier. Your boss may interpret your observations as an attempt to tell him or her how to run things.

When we’re trying to resolve and learn from our mistakes, it can be hard to tell whether the question we’re actually answering is, “What happened and how can I fix it?” or — because it’s human nature — “Who’s to blame, and how can I defend myself?” So as you’re trying to recover, ask yourself: “What am I responsible for?”

For example: You are responsible for planning the curriculum and following administrative procedures. You are not responsible for setting or communicating those procedures.

You are responsible for fixing what you can. You are not responsible for overseeing how others handle the cleanup. You are responsible for making sure you don’t repeat your mistakes. Unless you’re a leader, you are not responsible for making sure no one else repeats your mistakes.

Otherwise, lie low, lick your wounds, teach your classes. Then, well before the next deadline, check in with the relevant parties and make sure you understand what they need from you and when. That’s the best way to show your intent to do better.

Q: I work for a large employer with a very generous work-at-home program. Some employees don’t have assigned office space, and we have flexible scheduling, so people aren’t always available during predictable hours. That leaves phone calls, instant messaging and email.

Unfortunately, no one seems to answer phones. They either don’t launch their instant messaging app or get kicked offline by software updates. They wait days to respond to emails, if they respond at all. Even on-site employees attend meetings remotely so they can multitask.

In sum, I can’t “pop by” colleagues’ offices, see them at meetings, ping them on IM or get them on the phone when I need their input. This week I had to report someone for ignoring calls and emails on a rush project. How can I engage nonresponsive remote co-workers?

A: Some might see your question as a prime argument for reeling in telecommuting and flextime policies, as Yahoo, Aetna and IBM have done.

But I’m not sure your employer’s remote workplace is entirely to blame. Engaged workers who have a stake in project success manage to be productive even from remote locations and time zones.

Perhaps your nonresponsive collaborators need more rigid limits. Or maybe they’re overwhelmed, or disheartened by the constant reorganizations.

But since you’re not in a position to resolve systemic issues, let’s focus on how to elbow your way onto people’s agendas, and make responding as easy as possible.

Schedule spontaneity. Instead of emails and calls that languish unanswered, send calendar invitations for a 15-minute phone call or drop-in, with the option to reschedule. Although invitations also can be ignored, they’re more likely to generate a commitment.

When you score a slot on someone’s calendar, have a tight agenda and clear goal for the conversation: answers, ideas or a follow-up date.

Make emails easy to process. The subject line should trumpet what you need and when. Trim the fluff; keep “pleases” and “thank yous.”

Start seeing colleagues as clients. That may mean — hear me out — meeting them near their homes, in geographically efficient clusters.

Finally, when up against someone who’s creating a bottleneck, lateral pressure is less damaging than tattling. Provide updates and tag the parties involved: “The project will be ready for (CC’d Colleague 1)’s review after sign-off from (CC’d Colleague 2).” And keep your boss in the loop throughout — not just when the ship is about to run aground.

Author: Karla L. Miller

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