Q. I made a mistake at work. I missed a deadline, but I didn’t know it was such a big deal because I had set the deadline with my boss. I thought it would be OK to be late on this project, but it clearly wasn’t. I told him that I tried to finish on time, but a few other issues got in the way which I had to deal with. I really am working hard and trying to get everything done, but sometimes there is just too much to do. I told him this but he didn't seem to care. Do bosses ever get that?
A. Managers do understand the challenges to the amount of work people are expected to do and most are very supportive. What managers find difficult to understand and try to develop in staff are two important areas. The first area is communication. Your boss believed you when you set the deadline for the work you committed to complete. He may have set other deadlines associated with your part of the project being completed on time. When it wasn't completed and you didn't communicate before the deadline, everything changed.
Managers know things happen that can prevent you from delivering the promised work. What most managers find inexcusable is being surprised and informed after the fact. You need to communicate up front so your manager can try and help you rearrange priorities and meet the deadline or make alternate plans based on the delay.
The next important developmental skill is to learn how to make a professional apology. Mistakes get made, people are disappointed or upset and a professional, sincere apology can help.
An apology takes on real meaning when there are no excuses as part of the message. Many people believe they apologize when they say, "I'm sorry I couldn't get the project done on time, but I am overworked so that's why it happened." This style of apology will not support rebuilding credibility with your manager. Providing excuses for failing to deliver on a commitment doesn't show remorse or learning that hopefully took place so an issue won't arise again.
Instead, you might say, "I am so sorry this happened. I needed to communicate in advance when I thought I might miss the deadline which I didn't do, and will absolutely do so in the future. I know I put you in a difficult position and I don't want to ever do that. I really want your confidence in my ability to do this job."
Most managers will recognize the sincerity, lack of defensiveness and commitment to improve and agree to move on.