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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2006

Take responsibility for mistakes

By Dawn Sagario

Oprah Winfrey probably wishes she'd never heard of James Frey.

Oprah rarely gets bad press. But the talk-show queen has been the target of criticism for staunchly defending Frey's pseudo-memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," even when it came to light that his story was sprinkled with blatant lies. She later fessed up that she'd made a mistake by supporting Frey and apologized.

While Oprah had to say "I'm sorry" to a nationwide audience, she has a lot of company. Olympic skier Bode Miller recently apologized for his comments about skiing while wasted. Russell Crowe said sorry for chucking his phone at a hotel worker.

There is little comfort in knowing that most of us will be spared from apologizing on that grand of a scale, because admitting our wrongdoings isn't an easy task, especially at work.

Lessons can be learned from Oprah's approach in handling her situation that we can apply at work, said Ramon Greenwood, senior career counselor at commonsenseatwork.com.

While Greenwood commended Oprah for her public contrition, he said she should have responded immediately upon learning of Frey's truth-twisting.

Oprah not only didn't take full responsibility for her misjudgment, she also let the story languish instead of addressing it head-on, investigating all the facts in the case, Greenwood said. Oprah said she was duped by Frey, but "the fact is, she let herself be duped," he said.

Workers should immediately admit their mistakes and take responsibility for them, he said. They should be forthcoming and divulge all the facts. If someone took part in the mistake with you, let them share the onus of blame, Greenwood said. But avoid pointing fingers at others not involved.

Mistakes, if you learn from them, he said, may even improve the quality of your work relationships.

Some employees, such as young managers who are trying to prove their worth, may think asking for help from co-workers or the boss is a sign of weakness, Greenwood said. But asking for their assistance can be viewed as an asset.

"In a strange sort of way, mistakes can build strength in alliances," he said.

It may be an instance where you approach your manager and say that you need more training, said Kevin Pokorny, training consultant with HR-OneSource. Or it may involve acknowledging that you didn't fully understand the company's policies, and acted on what you thought to be correct.

It's tougher to admit your shortcomings if you knowingly and deliberately did something wrong, Pokorny said. In cases of harassment, for example, a sincere and heartfelt apology is particularly necessary.

"I think apologies are always appropriate, but I think especially when it involves personal harm, because people's emotions are affected by it," he said.

As tough as it may seem, facing the truth now, instead of attempting to cover it up, can save you a lot of grief in the future. Pokorny said that constant lies will eventually catch up with you.

"When we don't come forward with the mistakes, and we find ways of covering it up, blaming others ... we get used to it and you start developing a pattern," Pokorny said.

But some workers, he said, have told him that they've been burned when they've tried to tell the truth. A supervisor's ire inflamed over a mistake divulged by an employee. Or a manager held that mistake against the worker.

"The manager doesn't create an environment that gives permission for those employees to come forward and to respond to those mistakes in a respectful way," Pokorny said. One way managers can create such an atmosphere is leading by example, admitting to their own mistakes.

In the end, Pokorny's advice boils down to one simple saying from Mark Twain, found on Pokorny's coffee cup: "When in doubt, tell the truth."