Q: I treated a colleague poorly, letting her take the fall for a mistake we both were responsible for. There haven’t really seemed to be any consequences for her, but I feel guilty about it. What can I do to make amends without risking my reputation?
Francis, 50, sales manager
If you want a no-risk solution, you are not really stepping up to take responsibility for your actions. On the other hand, there are steps you can take once you decide to stop making protecting yourself your first priority.
Start with some soul searching. Reflect on the events and the choices you made. From your question, it seems likely that you committed a sin of omission, failing to speak up and take responsibility at the time. This might seem more innocent but it can cause as much damage as active finger pointing.
What was going on in your mind? Surprise? Fear? Relief that you were staying under the radar? Be honest with yourself even if it’s uncomfortable — as it should be.
Then think about what the consequences actually may have been. If you look closely, is she now treated with less respect or does she get fewer opportunities or less responsibility? Consequences may be subtle and cause long-term harm.
There may also be consequences for you that you are overlooking. I’m willing to bet that she no longer trusts or respects you; what is that loss of regard worth to you?
Others may also be on to you. It’s naive to think that colleagues and bosses aren’t aware of your involvement in the errors that occurred. In that case, your standing in their eyes may be taking a hit.
Action will involve clearing the air and owning your role in the mistake.
Start with apologizing to your colleague. Make sure it’s a genuine apology, not one of the pseudo-apologies that too often come out of our mouths. Acknowledge what you did, the harm it did to her, and your regret. Then offer to make reparations in ways that make sense.
This may include talking to others about the issues that occurred, your role, and your ideas for preventing future errors or remedying damage from the recent mistake. As an act of integrity, also speak up on behalf of your colleague.
Be guided by what she wants; however, don’t let graciousness on her part let you off the hook too much. It would be far too convenient for you to slither away because she said she’s fine.
At the same time, resurfacing an issue that has gone quiet could exacerbate it.
Your boss may be a good resource for determining what, if any, additional steps would be beneficial.
Then, remember, you are not entitled to automatic forgiveness just because you apologized. If she remains angry, accept it. Let your future actions earn trust going forward, and focus on behaving better toward her and others in the future.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and owner of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.