Don’t Shoot The Messenger: 3 Rules For Admitting That You Made A Mistake

We are all familiar with the term “don’t shoot the messenger,” including what it means. In short, never blame the bearer of bad news.

For those of you who are history buffs, you will undoubtedly recognize the validity of the saying as the messenger rarely, if ever, had any direct involvement with the bad news they were delivering.

However, and in terms of taking personal ownership or responsibility in today’s world, there is a general belief that this saying now invokes a certain level of excusability in which one is almost encouraged to deflect as opposed to face, a difficult situation. In short, bad news of any kind or the hint of failure, is hastily submerged in a flurry of explanations and defensive justifications. This unfortunately offers little in the way of providing meaningful insight into what went wrong, and how it can be addressed going forward.

I think it is important at this point to highlight the fact that in our lives, we have all failed or missed the mark at one time or another. In fact, I would confidently predict that there are going to be more than one or two missteps in everyone’s future.

Similar to what Aristotle had to say about avoiding criticism, the only way to avoid making a mistake is to do nothing, say nothing and be nothing. This of course is not an option.


Now that we have all agreed that failure like success, is inevitable at different times in your life, the question shifts from avoiding the admission that you made a mistake, to dealing with it.

In this regard, there are three very important rules for admitting a mistake and responding to it in a proactive and professional manner.

1. Stay In The Kitchen

Harry S. Truman once said “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”

This is the first, and most important rule of being able to admit that you made a mistake . . . you have to stay in the kitchen and take the heat.

kitchen heat.jpg

I can remember very early in my career being given some important advice by my then boss. He said that the surest way to get fired if you make a mistake, is to “beat around the bush in terms of telling me about something you did wrong.”

His reasoning was fairly straight forward . . . “I can respect someone who is willing to admit they made a mistake and take ownership of it. While I may be upset – even angry, I know that when a person is willing to take the heat for something they did, they will also work doubly hard to find a solution.”

“Conversely,” he went on to say “someone who attempts to hide or minimize a mistake – including blaming it on circumstance or worse – someone else, will also dodge the responsibility associated with making it right.”

2. Be Factual And To The Point

Far too often you might find yourself tempted to frame or package the admission of making an error with a superfluous explanation of why or how something happened. This is for the most part a natural human tendency in which we are all, to varying degrees, vulnerable.

My only advice is to fight this inclination.


With the same conviction that is associated with the encouragement to “let your Yes be Yes, and your No, No!” you need to tell it like it is, in a direct and succinct manner.

What this demonstrates is that you are more focused on getting it right, than being right.

When you  want to be right, your inclination might be to explain or defend your actions. However, when you want to get it right, the focus shifts from what you did, to what needs to be done to rectify the mistake.

While this might seem like a subtle distinction, it is nonetheless a telling demonstration of both your character and your values.

3. Offer A Solution Versus An Excuse

Following-up on the previous two points, when you decide to take the heat and openly acknowledge your mistake, you will then be free to make things right.

In essence you will make that all important transition from giving an excuse to providing a solution, turning what is at first a setback, into a moment of real victory.

To do this however, you have to have a clear plan of action in mind. This includes knowing where you went wrong, demonstrating how you will get it back on track and, what you will do going forward to avoid making the same mistake in the future.


By doing this, you will have empowered yourself to take control of the situation, as opposed to the situation taking control of you.

Don’t Be Defined By Your Mistakes?

One final word of advice . . . do not be defined by the mistakes you have made.

Instead, be known for your ability to admit when you have missed the mark, and your determination to make it right.

In the end, and to borrow a powerful statement from a commencement speech that Denzel Washington gave a few years ago . . . always fall forward!



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