Home Lead How to Tell an Employee I Made a Mistake.

How to Tell an Employee I Made a Mistake.

And two other tricky workplace dilemmas.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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  • Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here's a roundup of answers to three questions from readers.

1. How to tell my employee I made a mistake

My employee, Joe, met with a client, Alice, who had previously met with me (before Joe started in his role). I know that my meeting with Alice went poorly -- she was making unreasonable requests and displayed a level of inflexibility that I knew would not get her where she needed to be, but I also did not do a good job of being client-centered and I could tell our meeting left a poor taste in her mouth. Fast-forward to this week and Alice set up a meeting with Joe; in that meeting, I overheard her say (repeatedly) how much better he did and how awful I was to her. She also had totally changed her goals and was asking for something much more reasonable. I don't know if she knew that I could hear her or if she was just venting. I don't know if Joe suspects Alice was talking about me, but it was clear he handled the whole thing very professionally.

What do I say to him now? I feel like it's bad precedent for me to not own up to my mistake, but since her goals are totally different than they were before, our earlier conversation isn't particularly relevant to the work they'll do moving forward. I would want to give him more context, but I don't want him to think I'm being defensive -- even though she was being unreasonable in our meeting, I think her frustration with how our meeting went is justified. On top of all this, I still feel bad about how the meeting went, so it's not easy for me to talk about it at all.

Green responds:

The best thing you can do is to frame it as giving Joe useful context (which it is), be up-front and matter-of-fact about what happened, and take responsibility for your role in it. This isn't a horrible indictment of you -- we all have bad days and mess things up, and employees generally draw their conclusions from how you handle it when that happens, not from the fact that you're not perfect.

So for example: "I should give some of the history with Alice. She and I met earlier this year about X, and it didn't go well. She asked for [explain unreasonable requests] but I frankly didn't do a great job of explaining to her what our concerns with that would be. My sense is that our meeting didn't leave her with a great impression, and that's on me. I'm hoping that by starting fresh with you, things will go differently."

2. I keep ending up involved in things that I wanted to hand off

I constantly feel like I end up in the middle of things. I find an issue at work so I try to bring it to the correct person, but instead of being able to remove myself at that point, I get roped in. This seems to happen all the time, and I don't know if I am not good enough about making a clear hand-off or if I am unintentionally keeping myself in the middle because I'm trying to be part of the solution instead of butting out and letting those who really need to be involved take it over.

This is a small example but a good representation of how it goes: There is a fun run coming up in the city I live in. Our company would benefit from providing flyers to the organizer of the race because we're having a similar fundraiser this fall (when I will be out on maternity leave). I know the organizer of the event, so I ended up pinging between him and the person at my company who is handling our fun run to organize getting flyers and water bottles donated to the event. In retrospect, I wish I had just given my co-worker the contact information for the race organizer and stepped away from the situation, but I didn't.

Sometimes I feel like I have to stay involved so I'm not just unloading an issue onto someone else, but it feels equally like I'm muddying the water by staying involved.

Green responds:

The words you want are "I'll let you take it from here!" and variations on that. Examples:

  • "Jane, I'm connecting you with Cressida Mulberry, cc'd here. Cressida is organizing the county fun run and is the person to talk with about getting our flyers at the event. I'll let the two of you take it from here!"
  • "Cressida, you'd mentioned you might be interested in talking with Jane Smith. Here's the note she sent me and I'll let you decide what, if anything, to do with it from here!"
  • "In case it's helpful, I'm sending along the notes I took when I talked with the local organizers last year. I'll let you take it from here if you decide it's something you want to follow up on."
  • "Here's the contact info for the person who contacted us about catering the summer picnic. I'll let you take it from here."

3. Asking junior staff to speak for their generation

Any suggestions for how to curb the need some of my colleagues have to use the "youth" in the room -- be it younger staff or interns -- to speak for all people of their demographic? This happened to me when I was an intern and I hated it since it felt reductive. Now that I'm further along in my career, I feel like I have a chance to make a change, but I'm not sure how to tackle it.

An example is when we're discussing a social media campaign video and a member of staff turns to the 20-something intern and asks, "What does your generation think?"

I want people to realize we respect everyone for their opinions and expertise, ones that do not rely on age or social status, and that one person's thoughts on a matter do not scale up to represent an entire demographic. It's infuriating and diminishes the person's opinion to the year they were born, not their experience.

Green responds:

Yeah, that's annoying -- and treating an entire demographic as a monolithic block is rude. That said, it's also pretty natural for people to see "youth culture" as something they no longer understand or relate to, and to be curious for the young people they do know to explain aspects of it to them. So you may not be able to shut it down in every situation, but you can try.

One way to do it: The next time it happens, you could jump in and say, "I don't think any of us can speak for our entire generation, but I'm interested in hearing Jane's take as just herself."

If someone is a repeat offender and you have the standing to speak to them about it privately, you could do that too -- something like, "I'm sure you didn't mean anything by it, but when you ask our younger staffers to speak for their whole generation, it puts the focus on their age in a way we wouldn't do with people who were older. It's great that we're asking for their input but I think they'd feel more respected if it we didn't tie it to their age."

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to [email protected].

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