When we were kids, the worst thing that we could imagine was getting in trouble with a grown up. Much to our parents’ relief, the mere suggestion that Mum might “get a bit cross in a minute” was usually enough to keep us in line. Similarly, many a Dad realised that the quickest way to a smooth shopping trip was saying that “the lady”/“the man” would give out to us for being naughty (regardless of the fact that “the lady” and “the man” were usually teenage M&S employees who couldn’t give a shit how naughty we were).
Getting in trouble was a big enough deal that we’d do whatever necessary to avoid it. Shifting the blame for crayon scribbles on the wall to your little brother (who conveniently couldn’t speak yet) was commonplace. As we got older, we’d feign forgetfulness to escape the wrath of our teachers when we hadn’t done our homework. Even for the most honest among us, little white lies were usually better than the dread and shame of getting in trouble.
It’s easy to see how that kind of fear – the kind that compromises even innocent, childhood morals – could stick with you. Of course nobody likes being yelled at, but it’s more than that – it’s guilt at having behaved badly, embarrassment at our poor judgement and anxiety at the thought of being called out on it. We’ve all felt that sick, lurching feeling in our stomachs when we realise we’ve irked or disappointed someone important. The instinct isn’t necessarily to lie (we have to have grown up somewhat), but to self-justify. “I’m sorry, but it’s not really my fault because [insert excuse here].” The trouble is; while this meek, evasive tactic might seem like the best way to cushion the horrible weight of that blame, it’s really not going to get you anywhere. Why? Because you are quite literally behaving as a child would. When you’re old enough to know better, pretending that you don’t will never win you any respect. What will win respect is integrity and accountability in both your personal and professional relationships.
So how do you own up like a grown up?
First of all, address your mistake as soon as you make it. Don’t let it fester or it’ll start weighing on you, the situation could become more complicated as you put it off, and ultimately it’s going to look like you tried to wriggle out of getting caught. If it’s something you can’t fix yourself, you need to give the person you’re owning up to as much time as possible to work it out.
Do make sure you’re giving an appropriate apology. That is to say: don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill. A handful of mistakes call for grovelling apologies, and they’re usually cases of emotional damage or of repetitive, conscious bad behaviour. Many mistakes (when addressed straight off the bat) can be forgiven with a simple “Sorry, that was my bad.”
When you’re owning up, you’re going to need to offer reassurance not just that you understand what you did wrong, but that you want to fix it and that you have learned from it. This is the crux of owning up like a grown up. The most level-headed, respectable confession is always going to sound something like: “Listen, I did this. I’m sorry; I understand that it’s a problem. Here’s why it happened, and this is what I’m going to do to rectify it.”
This is definitely not to say that you should accept blame you don’t deserve. We all admire honest, responsible people – but doormats don’t get quite the same reverence. If someone feels let down by you because of their unrealistic expectations, that’s really not your fault. If you made a mistake because of unclear instructions and bad communication, say so! There’s a difference between justifying your mistakes away and standing up for yourself.