Reader: I teach at a university. I recently missed the deadline for ordering textbooks and materials for a new class I was asked to teach on short notice. In doing so, I created extra work for a lot of colleagues, and news of my infraction was pushed up the managerial ladder as approval was sought for my requests from my department head, dean and others. I am deservedly in the doghouse. I apologized and promised never to do this again. Now I’m trying to be as low-maintenance as possible and just move forward.

However, in sorting everything out, I learned of a policy I was not aware of before, which was part of the reason for my mistake. My department is following practices that might need to be updated and clarified for everyone so we can comply with this policy when we’re ordering books. But when I spoke with a senior administrative staffer about my confusion around this policy, her tone suggested that I was wasting her time. I’m also concerned that bringing this up will simply reveal more of my ignorance about something that perhaps everyone else already knows. Should I mention this to my boss now, or wait and report the new information closer to the next deadline?

Karla: So you’ve made the kind of mistake that created needless work for people downstream and drew the eye of higher-ups. The good news: You’ve apologized, and you’re investigating how it happened so you can keep it from happening again — as anyone in your situation should.

But after a certain point, explanations exasperate. Right now, sharing what you’ve just learned about policy won’t make a stressed-out staffer’s life any easier. Your boss may interpret your observations as an attempt to tell him or her how to run things.

When we’re trying to resolve and learn from our mistakes, it can be hard to tell whether the question we’re actually answering is, “What happened and how can I fix it?” or — because it’s human nature — “Who’s to blame, and how can I defend myself?” So as you’re trying to recover, ask yourself: “What am I responsible for?”

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

For example: You are responsible for planning the curriculum and following administrative procedures. You are not responsible for setting or communicating those procedures.

You are responsible for fixing what you can. You are not responsible for overseeing how others handle the cleanup.

You are responsible for making sure you don’t repeat your mistakes. Unless you’re a leader, you are not responsible for making sure no one else repeats your mistakes.

Otherwise, lie low, lick your wounds, teach your classes. Then, well before the next deadline, check in with the relevant parties and make sure you understand what they need from you and when. That’s the best way to show your intent to do better.

PRO TIP: As Shakespeare says in “King John”: “And oftentimes excusing of a
fault / Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.”

Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing wpmagazine@washpost.com. Read more Work Advice columns.

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