Feeling Guilty Stops You From Taking Responsibility

Recently I messed up.

A client and I were meeting via webconference last month. I was capturing her powerful breakthroughs and a really cool action plan on a digital whiteboard. It was a 2-hour session and at the end we scheduled our next meeting and then I said, “I’ll send you a copy of this whiteboard.”

I hurriedly clicked out of the program, thinking I had saved the whiteboard, and ran to my next meeting. Welp, when I went to email the file, it wasn’t saved. Gulp. I contacted the hosting software service and asked if it existed in a magical place reserved for unicorns and folks like me. Nope. Gulp again.

I chose in that moment to not feel bad, sad, or mad. Instead I sent a simple email apologizing, explaining how I tried to make it right, asked how I can make it right now, and then moved on. I didn’t grovel or put myself down or wallow in my own stupidity. I owned up to what I did and said, “It won’t happen again.”

Internally I made a mental note to slow down and close out that program by following the actual instructions to ensure it never happens again. Slowing down is not a strength of mine. But following through on promises is much more important.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m working with another client who routinely delivers feedback to a direct report who never seems to finish her work and cries when asked why it isn’t completed. The direct report typically says, “I feel so guilty for not getting my work done. I just can’t seem to get it together.” This client has tried multiple tactics to deliver effective feedback AND get her to finish the work. He often finds himself picking up the slack for his employee.

This would have been me numerous years ago (the crying one and the slack picker-upper). I’ve dropped my fair share of balls and then felt really guilty/bad/sad/incompetent. Instead of following through quickly, I wallowed in the emotion for too long, causing more procrastination. (Unlike the direct report above, I would have completed the work and then picked up 5 more things because I felt guilty. Then causing more overwhelming feelings at having too much work and too little time.)

Have you ever found yourself in any of these roles?

Don’t let your emotions control how you get your work done.

Emotionally intelligent individuals know how to manage their emotions so the emotions don’t override the process or send them spiraling into shame. Next time you find yourself feeling guilty/bad/sad for a mistake or miscommunication,  do this instead:

  1. Accept the facts for what they are: you messed up.
  2. Quickly pivot toward taking responsibility for only your portion of the problem.
  3. Say, “I’m sorry. What can I do to make this right?”
  4. Identify 3 ways to fix it (with your colleague, if necessary)
  5. Fix it and move on.

Chances are this one mistake isn’t going to be the end of the world or cause anyone any permanent damage. Put a little perspective on it, take a breath, and work on doing it better next time.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, inappropriately critical, or spammy.

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