How to minimize damage when you’ve really screwed up



Oh, did I screw up last week!  I’ll tell you what I did, how I made it worse, and what I’m still learning about it.

I turned in my grades for my awesome undergrad leadership students. A frustrated email quickly arrived from a student, saying there must have been a mistake. Then a second and third reached me. They pleaded that I up their grades.  I was expecting push-back, because the class’ performance was really high, and the mandatory curve brought final grades down.  And because my class’ average was bumping its head against the ceiling of the mandatory grading curve, I couldn’t show mercy even if I wanted to. But when I looked at what happened, I realized I’d made two mistakes — one, a formula on the spreadsheet, and the other,work that had not been graded.

So, I found myself hopelessly wedged in between the rock of the grade curve and the injustice to two students. I tried to wriggle free. I appealed to “the system.” The system said that every prof and thus every student is governed by the curve. If I chose to break through it, it would be unfair to hundreds of others.  My breaking the curve would be publicized to faculty (and the rules allowed that as a consequence I could be disciplined, even prevented from teaching*).  The squeeze tightened.

After talking to wise colleagues, I chose to give the two students the grade they earned —and to keep the curve intact.  How, you ask?  You guessed it: by lowering others’ grades** — perpetrating a new injustice by taking away something that had been given.  I addressed each of the newly aggrieved personally, admitting my mistake, the systemic constraints and the unfortunate-for-them resolution.  Now, I had a new and vociferous round of complaints.  And here is where the title of this piece comes in:  How I (hope I) minimized the damage when I really screwed up. I did the basics: told the truth to the aggrieved, administrators, and newly aggrieved. Again, that’s basic – the price of admission to human community.

The bigger thing was that I felt it in my guts.  Felt terrible, especially when I heard how hard some had worked, how much this class mattered, how incommensurate their effort was with their grade.  I think it helped them that I apologized and did not allow myself to put conditions on the apology.  I screwed up.  And most helpful, I think, I stayed engaged with them; back and forth.  A couple really gave it to me.  I don’t blame them. I respect them.  I hope having a chance to be heard helped them unload.

I have been struck by how well they all seem to have gotten to an understanding place, and to a perspective that the grade is not everything, not close to it.

I don’t mean to turn this into a story about my being good or smart.  The fact is, I made a big mistake I will not repeat.  But when we lead and screw-up, our responsibility grows to help others grow through adversity — unquestionably one of life’s great teachers. A couple student immediately took the noble road of acceptance and perspective. A couple others had to fight through really hard feelings and the risk involved in sharing their feeling with me — in order to get to a place of big life-learning.  If I had run from my mistakes, I could not have been available to help them; that would have made me doubly culpable!

Instead, their nobility gives me hope and courage for the future, as I, like you, strive to

Lead with our best selves,



* As with many ethical questions, the all-too-egoistic elements can sneak in, disguising themselves as moral arguments. In this case I have to ask: “Was I being a moral coward by not telling the system that I would not take away grades I had given — even if I were punished as a result – because it’s just wrong to give a student an A and then make it a B+?”  I had to ask myself that.  I BELIEVE that my self-interest was not a salient ethical consideration, and that I did act with that motive in mind.  But I admit to you and myself that I can’t KNOW for sure that my motivation to cover my own rear end did not worm its way in to my solution. 

** Because I had to bump two students’ grades considerably, e.g., B- to straight-A, I then had to adjust a number of others to satisfy the — forgive the pun — unbending curve.