One of the best pieces of advice I ever received when I moved into a management role was to “never take credit, always take blame.” This entry isn’t going to touch on the first part of the statement about never taking credit–but I think the second part is more important for anyone in life and in a career. Taking responsibility and admitting your mistakes will get you much further than any alternative (lying about them, hiding them, or diverting attention are some strategies I have employed in the past).
Just think about when you have been lied to–would it mean more to you if that person had since returned to you and come clean? Most people would answer yes.
One of the most accessible instances of lying and then coming clean was on an episode of Sex and the City (season 4, episode 59). In this episode Carrie lies to her boyfriend about having an abortion. It is a serious topic no doubt, but when she sees his reaction, he doesn’t want him to look at her the same way. She doesn’t know why she does it, but she is worried that he will think less of her. At the end of the episode (and after some soul searching and gossip sessions with her girlfriends) she comes clean to him and tells him the truth. And while he isn’t happy that she lied, you can tell he respects her for bring forthright and their relationship is no worse off.
So what does Sex and the City have to do with your career? Probably very little. However, the lesson to learn from this is that if you make a mistake that the best thing you can do is be upfront and forthright about it. Even if it is hard to tell someone something, dealing with the guilt, maintaining a lie, and the fact they may eventually learn the truth–all of these are often much worse than being truthful from the beginning.
So at work, if you are a leader then you should always be up front about your screw-ups and your’s teams screw-ups (which are essentially your own). I always suggest to people that in the event of an emergency (you screwed up and your management knows it) the best thing you can do is face up to your mistake, let them know what happened and how you are going to address it so it never happens again. People, employees, we are all bound to make mistakes here and there and all management wants to know is that it is being handled appropriately and it won’t happen again. This means understanding causation (why did you lie about something? or what caused the system to go down? or what caused the build to break?) and how to detect or prevent it in the future.
I once heard a story that a man who worked for Bill Gates lost several million dollars on a failed venture. He was terrified to go face Bill afterwards, and supposedly all Mr. Gates asked was did he learn anything. The guy apparently gave Bill a satisfactory answer because urban legend says he was promoted and ended up being very successful. Now I don’t think if people screw up and cost the company money it means they will get promoted, I wouldn’t even necessarily say their job would be secure at some companies–but understanding your mistake, handling it, and showing that you are competent will get you much further than covering it up. After all, it is probably only a matter of time until someone uncovers it and then you will have a whole lot more problems to answer.
Take responsibility for your problems or any issues within your team. Show that you are handling them, and have a plan. If a person on your team is failing–it is not their fault it is your own–you need to manage your team so this doesn’t happen. Set your management’s expectations and if they give you an unrealistic deadline ask for more resources–don’t blame Billy when you end up slipping. Always take the blame, because as a leader it is your fault.