Admitting Fault and the AITA? Reflex

Posted by Matt on June 13, 2024 · 7 mins read

A while back, I was having a conversation with a fellow engineering manager about a particularly tense encounter he had with a coworker. The details of that encounter have faded, but I remember someone was throwing blame at my peer. During his story, he said this, which resonated with me:

“Maybe I’m crazy, but in those type of situations, I immediately step back and see if I did something wrong.”

I made my agreement visible by nodding vigorously. My colleague accurately described my reflex in many situations where something goes wrong or I’m being blamed.

I call it the “Am I the A**shole? Reflex” (The AITA? Reflex). There is (somewhat) famous subreddit called r/AmITheA**hole? where anyone can post about an experience where someone was being an a**hole to them and reflect on the question “…But am I the a**hole here?”. The stories range from hilarious to genuinely intriguing, sometimes resulting in thought-provoking responses that cause the poster to realize that they are, indeed, the a**hole.

My own experience with the AITA? Reflex has been an emotional rollercoaster. For a long, long time, I didn’t even think about it. Then, when I became a manager for the first time, I became concerned that this was because of a lack of self-confidence and that this instinct needed to be overcome.

With time, I’ve realized that asking, “Is this my fault?” before reacting is extremely important when leading any team or project.

It may take seconds to answer, “Most definitely, not my fault.” But if you have a hint of doubt that it could be your fault, you need to pull on that thread and start asking questions and self-reflecting.

The last thing you want to do to peers and talent is show that you can’t own up to your mistakes. If you give into the fear of admitting fault, you set a toxic example for your organization: shifting blame is the norm. You encourage a culture of covering up mistakes rather than figuring out how to prevent them.

To avoid this, I often ask myself, “Could I have done something to prevent this?” If the answer is yes, I ask, “Was doing that thing reasonable to expect of myself?”

Say something immediately if it was your fault and it was reasonable to prevent it. If you know what could have prevented it, say it. Say what you’ll do to prevent it from happening again, or say that you’ll follow up with that information soon.

In a group setting, admitting that a situation went south because of you can immediately de-escalate a tense room. At the same time, it sets an example that it’s okay to admit fault and that we, as a team, are less concerned about blame and more about learning and moving on.

When you admit fault one on one, you can have a potent conversation about the nuances of why you may have screwed up. You can use it as a learning moment to underscore what you’ll do to remedy the situation and prevent it from happening again. It can be an essential moment to bond with a peer or report and build rapport.

If I couldn’t have prevented something bad from happening, or it wasn’t reasonable to do so, I start reflecting a little deeper: )“Is it possible that others could simply perceive this as your fault even if it wasn’t? Why?”

When you’re in leadership, perception is often reality. So, knowing how your actions are perceived is just as important as the actions themselves. In these situations, it’s important not to blame someone else but to calmly give as much context as possible.

What you shouldn’t do is point the blame. Pointing the blame elsewhere is the only thing worse than not admitting fault. If after giving that context, others don’t understand that it’s not your fault, then you have the choice of agreeing to disagree or falling on the sword in order to move on. Taking the blame when it’s not your fault requires a careful cost/benefit analysis; you don’t want to hurt yourself. That’s a subject for another post…

Tips on Admitting Fault

If you struggle with admitting fault, knowing your audience is critical. For some situations and people, humor works. Sometimes, specific actions are necessary to show it won’t happen again, especially if you’re managing up. Sometimes, just being sincere is the best default.

Here’s some ideas that might help.

Simple sincerity

“I’m feeling pretty embarrassed right now. That was my fault, I didn’t [y] and should have [y], my apologies. Let me figure out how I can prevent that from happening again.”

Start humorously, pivot to sincerity

“Well, I seem to have done it again. I’ve failed you! Can you forgive me?! [… pivot to sincerity ] But, really, I am sorry, I won’t let that happen again. Can we talk about how I can help fix it?”


“This is definitely my fault. I did not [a] and should have [b]. I’m going to figure out how to fix this, but I believe that [doing c, d, and e] will probably help. In the future, I will [f, g and h] to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”


“This was my fault. I can tell that you’re really [upset/frustrated/insert emotion here] because of it and I’m really sorry. I’m going to try to fix it by [a, b and c]. How does that sound? Do you want to talk about it more?”

Go forth and check yourself

Especially right now, in a bad tech job market where people are tense and worried about getting laid off, we need to remember to admit fault when we screwed up and set a good example for others.

Always question your actions in a healthy way. Don’t perseverate on it or let it get in the way of taking action, but also… Don’t be an a**hole.