How To Say “I Screwed Up”

Today at work – I screwed up.

As we do. As we ALL do. Sometimes more often than we like to admit.

But I realized today, in the middle of announcing my mistake, that there’s one trait I’m really happy the military instilled in me.

The ability to say “I was wrong.” in front of a group of peers.

Or superiors. And most especially, subordinates.

It’s an incredibly powerful ability when done well. It’s humbling and resets roles and expectations of performance. It gets people thinking about how they have screwed up recently and how to avoid it in the future.

And hopefully it shows accountability, self-awareness and commitment to the team.

It also brings out the best and worst in others you’ve announced your screw up to.

And the worst can be pretty ugly. The “I can’t believe you did that” types. The subtle or overt distancing, Luckily these people are fairly few and far between. And the knowledge of how people act in those situations can give you an incredibly helpful view of their character.

I remember one day, when I was a brand new lieutenant in my first fighter squadron, my peer stood up in front of all the other squadron pilots at our Friday afternoon meeting and announced he had screwed up big time. I forget what he even did. It was nothing life-changing. Nobody died or was hurt. But it was something really embarrassing.

I’ll always remember the way he stood up, announced his mistake, how he knew he’d screwed up and would fix it next time, and then sat back down. No hedging. No “the sun was in my eyes.” No excuses. It really built trust and showed him to be a true team player. I never told him that, but I should.

I’ve used his example as my model for handling public apologies to this day. Hopefully you have an example like that in your own life to guide you. It’s not easy. I still hedge and make excuses sometimes, which I don’t like. But I’ve gotten better at it over time.

We all screw up. But learning how to handle failure gracefully is a skill we can all learn.