This four-part series has focused on accountability. We started with the steps you can take to show you’re accountable, then got into messier territory talking about how to cope when you have accountability without control. In the most recent post, I called out managers who think that shared accountability is a good idea and offered three alternatives. Now, let’s talk turkey. What happens if you blow it, belly flop, let the bottom fall out?

If you like to think of yourself as an accountable person, it’s painful when you have to come to terms with letting yourself or others down. Whether your version of failing was losing your nerve, missing the mark, dropping the ball, throwing in the towel, or going down the tubes, you’ll need options for where to go from here.

The good news is that you have many options. If you handle the situation well, your reputation as an accountable colleague and direct report will likely be intact—and maybe even strengthened.

Your approach and options for recovering from your flop depend on whether the process is still underway (and therefore, there’s time for a last-minute save) or whether the final gong has already rung. So, let’s take each possibility in turn.

If It’s Not Too Late

By “not too late,” I mean there’s still an opportunity to deliver some version of what was expected. It might be later than everyone intended, less grand, or more expensive, but it’s not a lost cause. If the door is still open a crack, you’ve got these options:

Clean Slate

You might have failed to deliver the first time because you had competing priorities for your time and energy.  If you can plug those drains on your attention, you can take another pass at the work. In that case, you might say something like…

“I didn’t finish the report on time, and I know that’s left you with less time to review it before it goes out. I made a mistake trying to write the report and a proposal at the same time. I’ve spoken with Joyce, and she’s agreed to take over my proposal work so I can give my full attention to the report. Would it be ok if I had it to you by end-of-day Friday?”

New Approach

If you failed to deliver because you weren’t approaching the task correctly, you might be able to resuscitate it (and, with it, your reputation) by adopting a new approach. If you’ve flopped once, you might want to go one step further and enlist the help of others to develop or validate that approach. You could say…

“I didn’t get the design done, which meant you missed sharing it at the monthly committee meeting. I apologize. My error was that I tried to get input through a survey and didn’t get a sufficient response. I’ve spoken with a few folks across the team, and they recommended I set up individual appointments instead. Could I have two weeks to try that alternative approach? I’ll send invites today, and if I don’t get enough uptake, I’ll come back to you tomorrow to figure out a different way.”

Revised Scope

If the issue was an overly ambitious goal, you might have the chance to renegotiate the definition of “done.” If you can define the project’s scope more tightly, you might be able to deliver. You could try…

“I didn’t get all the phases of the project plan mapped out, and I realize that is creating some anxiety in the team. I feel bad about that. I think I got flummoxed trying to map out the later stages before we’ve made some of the decisions at the early gates. What if I were to share the detailed map of the first two stages and only a high-level view of stages three to six?

Lateral pass

Maybe this particular task just wasn’t in your grasp. If that’s the case, the best way to demonstrate your accountability is to find the person who would be better suited. Don’t just dump the work on anyone passing by; once you recommend someone, your reputation will be tied to theirs. Instead, do your homework and find someone you are confident will succeed. Then test it out with…

“I didn’t deliver on the new performance management process, and I feel terrible that we’re now only eight weeks until launch. I realize now that I lack experience doing this work with field staff. I’ve asked around, and Denice is the expert. Would it be ok if she took over and I helped her instead?


In each scenario, the formula is to state clearly and objectively what you didn’t accomplish, describe what you believe to be the impact on others, then apologize. From there, you can share your take on the problem and propose a new option to deliver the next-best alternative to what you committed to in the first place.

If It’s Too Late

Sometimes it’s too late to recover. The proposal is sent. The presentation is over. The launch had to be canceled. In those situations, you’re into risk reduction and reputational remediation territory. Don’t despair; own it and show you’ve learned the lesson.


Now’s the time to pull out your BEST apology. Not the low accountability, flaccid apologies described in this excellent HBR article like “I’m sorry this happened” or “I’m sorry I had too much on my plate.” You want a chin-up, arms-wide, full ownership apology. Check out my formula for a great apology.


After apologizing, the low-accountability person slinks off into the shadows. The high-accountability person finds ways to mitigate the risks of their failure and to reduce the damage done. For example, if you missed a due date, can you work extra time to catch up or assist the people downstream who now have less time for their part of the project? If you delivered a poor-quality presentation and the client’s not happy, can you provide something of extra value to get you back in their good graces?


The next step is to learn your lesson; that might require a few steps. First, reflect on what happened and interrogate what caused you to fail. Next, frame the issue differently and look for the root causes. Next, do a little homework and figure out other options you might have used and different approaches that would make you more successful next time. Finally, once you’ve arrived at your conclusions, share what you’ve learned with your boss or colleagues so they see you know better now.

I particularly love this oft-quoted Thomas Watson line…

“Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?”

– Thomas John Watson Sr., IBM


The final test of whether you’re accountable is how you show up the next time. This is your chance to show that you’ve grown and won’t make the same mistakes again. If your mistake the last time was missing the mark, spend more time confirming expectations this time. If you missed deadlines, check in at frequent milestones. If the quality of your work wasn’t up to par, share your plans before starting and your drafts before finalizing.

My friend Laura Gassner Otting says that failure is not final or fatal. Instead, she encourages us to see failure as a fulcrum. It’s a pivot point. Walking through these steps will preserve your reputation as an accountable person and even earn you points as a quick study.

More on This: Accountability Miniseries

Most organizations emphasize accountability because it’s so important to driving results. Unfortunately, our notions of accountability and how to foster it are often misguided. This series delves deep into accountability from the perspective of an individual contributor who wants to demonstrate that they’re accountable and of a manager who wants to bolster accountability on their team.

Additional Resources

Video: We NEED to Change the Way We Talk About Accountability

How to Show That You’re Accountable

Being Accountable When You Don’t Have Control

From Harvard Business Review: How to Hold Your Team Accountable with Compassion Not Fear