Being willing to admit it when you mess up in the workplace

Dr. Scott Chambers

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


ElephantIn English, we call it, “the elephant in the room”.  This curious phrase describes a situation when everyone knows about something, but nobody is willing to talk about it.  “Elephants” occur when somebody messes up and everyone knows it, but the person who messed up is unwilling to admit it.  It puts the atmosphere somewhere between mildly awkward and deeply annoying.  It is especially bad when someone in leadership makes a mistake and won’t admit it.  It could be an honest mistake, in which the person is trying to do the right thing, but makes an error.  Or, it could be a dishonest act, deliberately done despite knowing the act is wrong. A Chinese student I know was doing an internship in a multi-national corporation.  The interns were asked to work ridiculously long hours six days a week, and were expected to work extremely hard.  Meanwhile, a supervisor was sitting in her cubicle chit chatting with friends on her cell phone within earshot of all the interns.  It made the student furious!

We earn great respect and trust in the eyes of our coworkers when: (1) we never ask them to do something we are not willing to do ourselves, and (2) we admit it when we make a mistake and ask for help from our colleagues to correct the situation, if needed.  If there are tables and chairs to be stacked and you’re in charge, pitch in and help stack.  Set an example, and people will follow.  Strive to do the right thing at all times. We all have a built-in sense of right and wrong.  It’s been imprinted on our souls by our Maker.  Strive to follow your conscience.  It will lead you in the right direction, if you let it.  But, when you do mess up, and you will (because we all do more often than we like to admit!), be quick to admit it.  Take responsibility not only for admitting the mistake, but also for doing whatever needs to be done to correct the situation your mistake created.  By the way, this principle also applies to parenting.  Your children will know you’re not perfect, and they’ll think you’re crazy if you try to come across as being perfect.  Admitting your mistakes and asking your children’s forgiveness will give your kids the greatest respect for you.

In my research laboratory, one of my graduate students Joe (not his real name) was having trouble getting his experimental work analyzed and written for publication. Rather than ask for help, Joe pretended to be sick and did not come to work.  When I called him, Joe told me had a heart condition that could be serious, and that he was on doctor’s orders to stay home and rest. When I inquired of the doctor, I learned that Joe only had a sore throat.  When I confronted Joe, he admitted he had lied to me, and we talked through the underlying reason for his deception.  Joe was too proud to admit a weakness and ask for help.  But, rather than doing so, he chose to do nothing.  For the next few months I spent time with Joe, trying to help him work through his pride and work ethic issues. But in the end I had to fire Joe because he was unwilling to admit to his problems and follow through with the necessary steps required to deal with them.

Socrates once wrote, “the unexamined life is not worth living”.  There is much wisdom in this statement.  So, let me encourage you to do a little self-examination.

  1. Do you tend to think of yourself as being superior to those around you?
  2. When was the last time you made a mistake and admitted it to others?
  3. Do you strive to be a leader?  If so, do you understand than the best leaders are those you are committed to serving those they lead?


This last question is really important because organizations in which the leader is committed to the betterment of his or her people not only tend to be phenomenally successful, but they also produce strong loyalty and receive much energy and hard work from their employees.