How to Take Responsibility after a Major Mistake

4 Steps to Get Your Life Back on Track

One key to leadership is being willing to take responsibility for your mistakes. Good leaders do this even when they’re guilty of only 10 percent of the problem or accusation. But the truth is we’ve all had cases where we’ve been guilty of the whole enchilada, right?

I once had a teammate—this was years ago now—who was caught viewing porn on her computer at work. I don’t know how she thought she’d get away with it. Her computer screen was visible to just about anyone walking by.

That’s how she got busted. Someone passed by, did a double-take, and reported her.

This was the first time I’d run into this problem at work, but the disciplinary procedure was clear enough. She was given a stern warning. Do this again, and you’ll be fired. I figured that would end it.

But no.

A few months later it happened again. I was the second in command on my team, but my boss was gone. So it was my job that day to drop the ax.

I called the employee to a meeting and did it by the book. I started with the conclusion: “You’ve been terminated, effective immediately.” I stated the reason: “You were caught viewing porn on a company computer. This is your second offense.” And I reminded her she knew this would be the outcome of her choice: “You were warned that behavior would result in your termination.”

Finally, I explained her severance package and told her that the decision was non-negotiable.

But she was just getting started. First, despite multiple witnesses, she flat denied it. If the situation weren’t so tense, it might have been funny. Then she shifted the blame to me. “If my husband finds out, this will be the end of my marriage,” she said. “That will be on your head.”

She still wasn’t done. She was in leadership at her church and tried using that against me as well.

All this fluster came down to one simple fact: She refused to take responsibility for her behavior. I realize that people struggle with habits and addictions. Taking responsibility looks like getting the help necessary to overcome them. This person wasn’t interested in that at all.

So what does it mean to take responsibility after a major mistake? Here are four steps anyone can follow to get things back on track.

  1. Take ownership. It starts with responsibility. Great leaders display what Joan Didion once called “moral nerve.” It takes an act of courage to own a bad situation. It can be terribly frightening to admit a wrong, to be vulnerable and expose yourself to anger and even punishment. You don’t have to wait for the absence of fear and doubt. Courage means doing it scared.

  2. Show remorse for the problem. It doesn’t end with ownership. If we want to turn things around, we have to add remorse to responsibility. Our failings cause difficulty to others. Our mistakes cost time, money, and sometimes heartache. We should express sorrow and regret for the hurt our behavior caused.

  3. Express gratitude for the reckoning. When a major mistake comes to light, the natural response is to get defensive or hide. We’re all a bit like Adam and Eve in the Garden. But the reckoning is the start of restoration. If we escape detection for a major mistake, the harm is still there. And it harms us even more.

  4. Resolve to take action. Once a major mistake comes to light, it can be easy to slink off and leave the problem in other’s hands. In the case of a termination, you may not have a choice in the matter. But you always have something you can do. If you can’t fix the actual problem, you can still address your part in it—your failings, misjudgments, destructive habits, whatever contributed to the crisis.

I’ve seen people walk through these four steps after mistakes just as big—and bigger—than my former teammate. If you’ve made a major mistake recently, and most of us have, that can be true of you as well.

Like the old saying goes, to err is human. But so is rebounding from our mistakes.

Question: What’s one major mistake you took responsibility for in the past