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Owning mistakes

An unknown author said, “When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that three of his fingers are pointing at himself.” As humans with character defects, we naturally want to blame other people for mistakes, circumstances, and problems. This is a dark and cowardly aspect of human behavior.

It is also counterproductive and harms everyone; particularly the accuser.

People want to hear about how a problem will be fixed; not who is to blame. Those who shift blame to others lose respect from the community and become untrustworthy. Placing blame on others also destroys relationships, cripples large and small businesses, and even leads countries into war.

The main reason that we have an urge to point a finger at someone else is because it can make us feel that we are “saving face.” Someone must be the scapegoat as long as it not us. The problem with this is that by blaming others we cannot fix a problem or overcome a challenge. Moving blame to others creates an atmosphere of resentment and makes former friends and colleagues into adversaries. While this is a natural human urge, it can be contained with accepting our part in the situation.

For example, when a business does not meet a deadline, there are multiple people involved. Because that deadline was not met, a challenge presents itself. There are only two choices:

Blame other team members for perceived laziness, incompetency, lack of communication, etc.; or, each member recognizing that, as a group, they must fix the problem.

The first choice leads to disaster. The second choice requires each member to look into the mirror and see what part they played in missing the deadline and taking personal responsibility for their part. When this happens, the team has an excellent chance to meet the challenge of satisfying the customer. Why? By taking responsibility and “owning our mistake”, the group can then focus on quickly fixing the problem. Additionally, the customer views the firm as a cohesive team that, while imperfect, puts him or her first rather than hearing the members place blame on each other.

Another example is common during sentencing hearings in criminal cases. When a defendant enters a guilty plea before a judge, his lawyer will oftentimes plead with the judge for leniency. Sometimes, the defendant will also make a statement to the judge. I cringe when I hear a defendant offer the judge a multitude of excuses regarding why he committed the crime. Sometimes, you will hear things like, “I was drunk”, “My girlfriend made me angry”, “I was depressed”, “ I did not know that the car was stolen”, “I was out of work”, or “my co-defendant was more responsible than me.” These excuses show that the defendant has no remorse and does not take ownership of his actions. The result is oftentimes a stiff sentence.

However, when a defendant takes ownership of his behavior and does not offer excuses, oftentimes, the opposite result happens. I have seen cases where the judge commends the defendant for taking personal responsibility and hands down a much lighter sentence than anticipated.

“Owning it” takes courage. But, when we own our mistakes, others quickly notice. This is because we are accustomed to hearing excuses from others when a problem arises. It is like a breath of fresh air to be told by another person that they are responsible; not other people or other circumstances.

Lastly, by taking personal responsibility, we also gain the respect and admiration from the person who was affected by our mistake.