How to tell a colleague they screwed up

21 Oct 2022

It’s always an awkward situation when someone on par with you in the workplace does something wrong or screwed up. It’s not a typo or a sentence gone wrong—but an absolute mess where they have to redo the entire thing. These types of situation calls for a nuanced and subtle reaction.

This isn’t a mistake that you can ignore, and even you know that. Now, that it has come to you, you will have to address this issue. Because, you know that if you ignore this mistake, then it might happen again, and can cause problems overall to the accomplishment of the project. Therefore, you will need to have a conversation with your colleague about their performance in a way that is not condescending, but direct enough that they make changes. Remember, you don't want to ruin your workplace relationship with them.

So, what’s the best way to go about this? How exactly can you tell your colleague that they screwed up?

#1. Tell them to take another look

You can tell them to take another look at their work, which will imply subtly that something is wrong and they will look out for errors as well. This not only helps you get away from an awkward conversation, but will make them more aware about their own errors as well.

Keep in mind that you will need to be a tad bit more specific about what it is that they need to look at again. Because, the minute you suggest that they look at their work again, it is implied that they have done something wrong. But, it could be anything. By suggesting where they need to focus on, you can guide them to the error without sounding condescending about it.

#2. Admit that you’ve made mistakes before

Even if you manage to tell your colleague that they have made a mistake in the nicest way possible, learning that there is something wrong with your work can be disheartening. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been told that there is something off with our work and we know what it feels like.

Try and comfort your colleague by telling them that—tell them that you’ve been there, that we’ve all been there, and that mistakes are common when working on something. Being supportive always gives your colleague a sense that they are not alone, and that motivates them to better their mistakes without any bitterness. This reduces their vulnerability because you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position as well.

#3. Offer help

If you seem to notice that your colleague is struggling with something and needs help, make sure you find time and help them out a bit. You don’t have to do their work for them, just guide them where they’re wrong in a supportive manner, with a tone that doesn’t sound too accusing. If you accuse them while helping them, especially when they are feeling most vulnerable, they could get defensive. Do not point fingers and just talk about how the work needs to be done and why.

Be sincere in your approach, and this sincerity will make them want to take your help. Don’t chastise them for needing your help. Know that your offer will help them better their mistakes, and they will invariably learn something more.

Make sure that your approach is polite and friendly. You do not want to tell them that they have made a mistake so that they feel bad about it. You’re telling them in such a way that will make them want to improve. To make sure this transition happens, be kind and empathetic in your approach.

Constructive feedback is the way to go to point them to the right direction. Keep in mind that telling them they screwed up can vary. Especially if they are a fresh hire or if they have been working with you for a while. You can of course, be friendly with someone you’ve known well—but invariably, being polite can get the job done.

The mistake needs to be avoided so that your company benefits from it as well. It is not so that you can showcase that you know better. Therefore, keep in mind that their benefit is ultimately for them and for the company.

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