Effective Communication

What To Do When A Colleague’s Mistake Affects You

colleague mistake

When someone on your team makes a mistake, you don’t want to be the one to finger-point, but you also don’t want to take the blame for something that’s not your fault. Yet managers do it all the time.

A recent OfficeTeam survey found that one in three senior managers admitted taking the blame for something they didn’t do. More than a third claimed it was because they felt somewhat responsible, but 28 percent just wanted to avoid getting others in trouble. For the rest, it wasn’t worth their time to argue or explain.

What could be the harm, then, in just falling on the sword? For one, if you are doing your job well you want to be recognized for that, not remembered for a mistake that’s not yours. And second, you will no doubt make your own mistakes and will need to take responsibility for them, so why start with mistakes that aren’t even yours?

If you take the blame often enough your colleagues may start to take advantage of you. Your reputation, however, won’t be as “blame-taker” but “mistake-maker” and that could put your job on the line.

Here are some strategies for handling team mistakes that aren’t your fault:

  • Make sure you really do need to correct the mistake. Why do you want to correct this person? Is it because the mistake could be attributed wrongly to you? Could it end up hurting a client or senior manager? Make sure the coworker’s best interests are at heart before you confront them.
  • Approach your coworker directly. Don’t talk to others on the team about the mistake that was made and how it happened—approach the source of the error and speak to them directly.
  • Don’t blame–use facts and concrete examples. Rather than blaming the person or people responsible, stick to the facts about what went wrong and be as honest and diplomatic as possible. Don’t start offering excuses, hypothetical scenarios or alternate explanations. Try and keep you mind on the bigger picture—identifying what went wrong and what steps the team needs to take to prevent it from happening again.
  • Establish common ground. Before you ask about the steps that led to the mistake, establish that you both want to understand what went wrong in the context of mutual goals. The team has goals it needs to achieve, and the mistake is preventing that from happening.
  • Ask what happened. If it’s a problem that’s short term—a sick child at home or a health problem—ask how you or someone else might be able to help. If the mistake being made is a bigger issue—like a lack of skill in a particular area, your colleague will need to find a way to build those skills or may need to ask your manager for help.
  • Clearly outline future expectations. Make sure that moving forward, expectations for every member of the team are delineated clearly. By discussing and documenting each person’s responsibilities and contributions, you build in team accountability.
  • Protect yourself. As you continue to work in a team remember to make your work visible, not by bragging but by taking credit for what you’ve done using the right language. For example: “I prepared this marketing analysis to show where we are doing well and where we need to refocus.” Offer to take the lead on things like presentations and you’ll be perceived as one of the most active participants on the team. And when the credit is due to a colleague’s good work, make sure and give that credit, and call attention to group successes too. That goodwill will come back to you.

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.