Repairing Screw-Ups: Three Ways to Ask for Help

Last Updated Oct 7, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

We all screw up from time to time. The best course of action is to "man up" about your failings and get the help you need to get back on track.

But there is a right way and a wrong way to ask others to comment on your performance, according to J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University.

Talking to's Amy Gallo, Hackman says don't start by asking open-ended questions. "It's generally much more constructive and helpful to seek confirmation and disconfirmation of one's own assessment than to ask someone to respond to an open-ended question about one's performance," Hackman says.

Other must-dos on the road to correction, according to Gallo:

  1. Come clean with the boss. Forget offering rationalizations and excuses -- tell the boss you have underperformed and ask for help.
  2. Involve mentors, peers and direct reports. This not only gives you numerous viewpoints, but also shows them you are tackling the problem head on.
  3. Restore your reputation. Share your rehab successes with others. Hackman suggests this language: "I've been doing some work to improve the degree to which I do X. Have you noticed any changes? Are there additional things you might recommend I consider?"
Gallo's piece Help! I'm an Underperformer has other great tips for recovering after a fall.

Here's the first thing I do after a whopper. I calm down by thinking of the Lockheed Martin engineering team that lost a $125 million Mars lander because some on the team measured in the metric system, others in English units. Must have made for a great after-action review.

How do you recover?

(Image by theihno, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.