Handle Your Next “Oh Shit…” Moment On The Jobsite

You know the feeling: Your crew is working hard, interruptions are minimal, and the project’s tracking well – it’s a good day. Then you get an urgent email or phone call about a screw-up, or you make the discovery yourself. It’s bad. Even worse? This one’s on you.

You’ve got an “Oh shit” moment you need to put in reverse, and fast.


As they say, “Shit happens” –  especially on construction projects (doesn’t matter how big or small).  But when it’s your mistake, simply chalking it up to bad timing or a fluke accident won’t cut it. (Think for a second about what runs through your head when someone tries this one on you.)

The impact of something that—from your perspective—was just a scheduling mix-up or typo can end up being be pretty far-reaching. For example, if you treat a payroll error or missing a stakeholder meeting like dialing a wrong number, nobody’s going to accept a half-hearted explanation. In fact, explaining it away could make things worse.  

Construction mistakes can cause serious problems, but projects (and your reputation) can be salvaged, if you handle them the right way. To help navigate your next “Oh shit!” moment, here are a few tips:

Take ownership — as quickly as possible

After making a mistake, the knee-jerk reaction is usually to fix it before it gets worse or anyone else finds out about it. Sometimes luck is on your side, but in most cases you’ll want to own your mistake. Say you forgot to schedule a delivery. Be upfront with your stakeholders and installers. Fight any urge to claim the supplier caused the mix-up. Reputation is too important in this business to get caught in a lie.

Consider your relationships

In certain cases, a lack of thoroughness—or something totally unforeseen—can lead you to a place no contractor wants to be: pitted against an owner. A perfect example is a homebuilder or remodeler whose estimate turns out to be well off the mark. Sure, maybe you should have asked for more upfront, but you didn’t (and you had your reasons then). Now you know you need more money to get the job done right, but asking the homeowner for more could have a couple of bad outcomes: 1.) it will almost certainly damage your relationship and make the rest of project incredibly uncomfortable, and 2.) it puts a dispute on your record – which could hurt your chances at landing future jobs.

Sometimes, painful as it is, the best thing to do is take the hit and learn what you can from the experience.

Create a “fix it” plan

After taking responsibility, you have to figure out how to fix the problem. It’s uncomfortable knowing that your stakeholders and team are closely watching you deal with the situation, but it’s better than trying to pull off a cover-up that could make things even worse.

Retrace your steps to see why you made the mistake in the first place. Think about what should have been done better (or differently) and what needs to be done now to fix the issue. Whether it’s simply apologizing for missing a meeting or putting in extra hours on your own dime to get the project back on schedule, it’s time to go over and above.

Document your recovery

If the mistake you’ve made had an effect on the jobsite, take photos, videos, and notes with all the right people CC’d, keeping everyone up-to-date on the status of the work. You can’t go back in time, but you can show everyone how quickly you can get things fixed. Nothing beats visual proof to demonstrate jobsite progress and start winning peoples’ trust back.

Ensure it won’t happen again

Problem solved. Now what? If you missed a meeting, start setting calendar alerts on your phone. Better yet, set tasks with due dates for yourself so that you don’t run over any of your own deadlines. If it was a scheduling issue, set aside time every week to review and adjust your project plan. Estimating problem? Revisit your process and talk to other contractors who’ve run into the same problem. 

Construction communication is one of the wildest beasts to try to tame. If your communication is all over the map, think about what you can do to manage it in one place so that things don’t overlap or get lost in the shuffle. Talking to your project team on and off the jobsite via email, text and phone calls is a recipe for something to go awry. For your own sanity, don’t rely on your own memory to keep it all straight in the course of a hectic workweek. If you want to see some different results in the near future, change it up: simplify.

Image by Nottsexminer (Lifeless Face #037) /Wikimedia Commons

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