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My Bad! When Co-workers Can't Admit Mistakes

Your co-worker made a mistake, but can't own it. In fact, this co-worker never owns a mistake, even when it's glaringly obvious who made it. Let's talk about the right thing to do when a co-worker can't admit to being wrong!

From big mistakes on projects to surefire predictions that don't pan out to errors in judgment to picking up the wrong break room dessert at the local bakery, the typical office abounds with both major and minor errors on a daily basis. Hey, we're human; mistakes happen! We apologize for our misstep, and move on.

The blameless co-worker, however, isn't one to eat humble pie by saying, "Oh! I was supposed to pick up an apple pie instead of a chocolate cake? My mistake." No, this co-worker prefers to let them eat cake by proclaiming, "Well, I don't know about you, but I heard 'chocolate cake,' so I just bought what I was told to buy."


Why don't some employees want to own their mistakes, no matter how small? Well, employees fear looking incompetent. If we admit our mistakes outright, then we might look like we don't know how to do our jobs, and there's no way we would willingly put ourselves in this position. Perhaps we've seen what happened to past co-workers who stepped up to take the blame, and it wasn't pretty.

Ego can also play a part. Admitting fault can be perceived as weakness, when it takes both incredible maturity and self-confidence to own one's mistakes. Likewise, great company leaders realize that mistakes will happen. They work to create company cultures that discourage finger pointing and encourage learning so employees don't make the same mistake twice. Great leaders forge a safe space for conceding our shortcomings.

But let's set our blue-sky, pie-in-the-sky corporate thinking aside. We need to put the blameless work peer in proper perspective! Here are five tips for dealing with work peers who won't own their errors:

1. Pick your battles wisely. Where does this mistake fall on the sliding scale of shortcomings? It's one thing if it's the wrong cake for the break room; it's quite another if it's a mistake that just cost the company a $2 million deal. You can argue all day how the sky isn't red, but it probably isn't worth the time, or trouble. Save your breath for the disagreements that matter most. Let it go. Agree to disagree. It's just a cake!

2. Don't play the blame game. Focus on fixing the problem instead of dwelling on who caused the problem in the first place. Staying fixated on the past doesn't move you, or the error-prone project, forward. (If your co-worker is trying to pin the blame on you, however, then you have every right to stand up for yourself.)

3. Know that your co-workers aren't fooled. Chances are, you aren't the only one who has noticed this co-worker's inability to admit mistakes. It's a workplace problem that doesn't hide itself very well over the long run. Good managers will figure out what's going on, and take appropriate action.

4. Document it. Start emailing or texting this work peer to finalize plans for important projects that could greatly impact your own performance. You might write, "Thanks for adding the changes and getting them back to me by 3 p.m. so we can make the deadline." Whether or not this co-worker writes back, you have something in writing should there be any disagreement. Happy (paper) trails!

5. Realize you won't change this co-worker. As a work peer, you're probably not going to change this co-worker's tendency to blame someone else. Besides, it's not your job. Instead, focus your energies on minimizing your interactions as much as possible, thinking ahead (see Tip #4), and knowing how, and when, to engage this work peer in conversation.

This situation can be tricky, and more than a little bit frustrating. The best thing you can do is to realize that it is your co-worker's issue, and not yours. Rise above it the best that you can, don't engage in the blame game, and keep doing your best work every day. I'll take the blame if you don't like my advice.


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