Keeping Face

Keeping Face

Making mistakes is easy, I do them all the time! However, what we do about them is more important. In this week’s theme of “mistakes,” I can easy spend time telling you about the mess I have gotten into and how I should have been more careful, but there’s nothing I can do about them. So I want to talk about keeping face after making mistakes.

We all know that moment when your heart sinks, your skin turns cold and you start to sweat. Your first reaction is “Oh God What Have I Done!” and then you start to pray no one else has seen your massive mistake and your hoping you can run away and hide – no one will notice will they? It’s not your fault, it has to be someone else who fed you wrong information! Or some faulty device or the fault of the technician – yes, he will do as the scapegoat!

The reason you are feeling like this is because you hate being told you’re bad at something and we are all looking for reassurance and approval from others. To go and tell your peers you have made a major **** up is just going to be really embarrassing! I mean they will see you for who you are and how will they ever respect you again?

Thank god we are engineers and not bankers! As engineers we know better and I bet everyone reading this knows the right thing to do – own up!

Keeping face, however, is hard and just as hard as owning up to what you have done. However, it’s important you do it in a controlled way. In some cases, every second counts! If someone else spots it before you open your mouth, you will forever feel that you only confessed because someone else found out first – or at least you will be thinking that’s what everyone else thinks of you.

So strike while the iron is hot – if that means swearing out loud and calling yourself an idiot then do it! We all make mistakes — some big, some small — but you will find others are willing to support you. This will help you to feel you are not alone.

Then you have to tell someone, maybe your boss, that you have just killed two weeks work and hundreds of dollars / pounds of kit. Again, do it and do it now – remember there are people who will enjoy telling your boss what a major mess you have got into. Its also important you do it to their face – not by email!

So make safe and limit the damage and that could first mean turning the kit off! Look at what you have done and then importantly think about why you messed up and how you are going to recover the situation. Then go tell your boss; he will not be happy, but you will keep your face if you’re an engineer about it.

Tell them everything in black and white and own up. You know it’s your fault so don’t go saying “well if so-and-so had only” because you have to take full responsibility for your actions. Explain why you have got yourself into this mess and explain how you have learnt from it – what will you do next time, could you help stop others from falling into the same trap?

You them need to explain your way out. Ask for help! Just because you messed up does not mean its up to only you to fix it – OK it is, but you should get help! You may need the help of other or just someone to check that once it’s fixed, you have done it correctly.

So whatever you have done, learn from it, own up, fix it and move on. Tomorrow, you may be helping someone else out of a hole and one day you may even be bragging about the time you made a mighty mistake!


I like this. But I owned up to a mistake once and a superior threw it back in my face a couple weeks later, re-blaming me for the whole issue when I’d already admitted I should have known better. I believe the superior also cited this as a reason for not trusting me in future situations (which ended up being a short term banishment, but still frustrating).

I am pro admitting mistakes but I think the wrong kind of boss or wrong kind of supervisor will use it as ammunition to blame subordinates for things rather than accept ultimate responsibility at their level. I’d advise you have to be careful to how you admit to your mistake.

I agree, its not just co workers that may be happy to see you suffer – the boss may do also. Would say that’s not somewhere you may want to work long term!?

There is a saying: It is not how you fall down which matters, but how you pick yourself up.

In reality it all depends on your boss. If they are a realistic person then they understand that mistakes happen. A good manager knows you feel bad, and didn’t do it on purpose. On the other hand if they are the sort that boasts about how they “went to the university of life, school of hard knocks” and whose management style consists mostly of shouting, then you are stuffed. You have the judgement call to make: Try to hide it or not? If the decision is to try and hide it, then the management have failed, and you should be looking at working somewhere better.

A counter question then; how would you keep face or react if a mistake made by one of your colleague or subordinates came to your desk? I think you can define certain steps or questions that you would ask to get a handle on the ”situation” even before examining the situation in detail.

This is cool. I remember my first gut wrenching mistake. Going to my boss and admitting my fool hardiness. He helped me resolve it and did everything in his power to help the situation. He knew I’d never make the same mistake again. 10 years later and -touch wood- I’m a better Engineer for it. So you guys mind if I steal this thread for a discussion on the linkedin IStructE group?

Everyone can make a mistake, even the best engineers (how about all of those engineers who said that a 5 lb block of sytrafoam couldn’t possibly damage a shuttle wing).

The important thing is what you do after the s**t hits the fan. Some people will blame others for the mistake, others will try and fade away into the wallpaper. I look for answers and solutions to fix the problem and try and get the repair project organized. The problem will never get resolved unless someone starts the ball rolling. You need to be that person.

Comments are closed.