Leadership Barometer 9 Admit Mistakes

July 29, 2019

Nobody likes to admit a mistake, but it can be a very powerful way to build trust, especially for leaders.

There are lots of ways to gauge the quality of a leader. One of my favorites is how readily the leader is willing to publicly admit a mistake.

Admits Mistakes

All leaders make mistakes. Few leaders relish the opportunity to publicly admit them. I think that is wrong thinking. For many types of mistakes a public “mea culpa” is a huge deposit in the trust account. Of course, there are types of mistakes that should not be flaunted before the general population.

For example, if a mistake is similar to one that a leader has made several times in the past, it is not a good idea to stand up in front of a group and say, “Well folks, I did it again.”

Likewise if a mistake is such a bonehead move it brings into question the sanity of a leader, it is not a good idea to admit it. But barring those kinds of issues, if an honest mistake was made, getting up and admitting it, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness is cathartic.

I once had the opportunity to call people together and admit a mistake I had made in a budget meeting the previous day. People were not happy to hear the news that I inadvertently gave away $10K, but I did have a steady stream of people come to my office later to tell me my apology was accepted and that my little speech resonated positively with my subordinates.

Reason: people do not expect leaders to apologize, because it is rarely done. You catch people off guard when you do it, and it has a major impact on trust.

Apologizing to your superior

Apologizing upward is another tricky area that can have a profound impact. The same caveats for apologizing downward apply here; if a mistake was plain stupid or it is the same one you have made before, best not admit it to the boss or some serious damage might result.

But if you have made an honest mistake, admitting this to the boss can be a big trust builder. This is especially true if the boss would never know unless you told her.

I recall a situation in my career where I had inadvertently divulged some company information while on a business trip in Japan. Nobody in my company would ever know I had slipped in my deportment, but it bothered me.

I took some special action to mitigate the mistake and then went hat in hand to my boss. I said, “Dick, I need to talk to you. I made a mistake when I was in Japan last week. You would never know this unless I told you, but here is what happened…”

I then described how I let a magazine be copied where I had written some notes in the margin. I described how I retrieved the copy and was given assurances that other copies had not been made.

My boss said “Well, Bob, you’re right, that is not the smartest thing you ever did.” He then said, “The smartest thing you ever did was to tell me about it.”

That short meeting with my boss increased his trust in me substantially, and I received several promotions over the next few years that I can trace to his confidence in me.

Granted, his confidence was influenced by numerous good things I had done, but by admitting something that I did not need to do, the relationship was strengthened rather than weakened. This is powerful stuff, but it must be used in the right way at the right time for the right reason.

After making a mistake most leaders try to hide it, downplay the importance, blame others, pretend it didn’t happen, or use some other method to try to weasel out of it. Often these actions serve to lower trust.

Obviously it is a stupid strategy to intentionally make mistakes so you can admit them to other people. For all of us, mistakes will happen naturally from time to time.

Consider taking the opportunity to apologize publicly; often it is a great way to build trust. Use this technique carefully and infrequently, and it can be a positive influence on on your career and a verification of the quality of your leadership.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.


Successful Supervisor 62 – Admitting Mistakes

January 28, 2018

We all know that all human beings make mistakes. The real character of a supervisor rests with her ability to admit it when she makes a mistake. Trying to cover up an error almost always backfires. While the intention may be to preserve respect by her people, concealing a mistake usually results in lower trust and respect.

One of the most powerful opportunities for any leader to build trust is to publicly admit mistakes. The source of that power is that it is so rare for leaders to stand up in front of a group and say something like this: “I called you here today to admit that I made a serious blunder yesterday. It was not intentional, as I will explain. Nevertheless, I failed to do the best thing for our group. I sincerely apologize for this and call on all of us to help mend the damage quickly. Without being defensive, let me just explain what happened…”

In a recent blog by Daniel Coyle, he quotes Dave Cooper, a Navy SEAL, as saying “The most important words a leader can say is ‘I screwed that up.’” He points out that leaders who create a safe environment by admitting their own vulnerability create the highest levels of trust.

If you were in the audience listening to this leader, how would you react? Chances are your esteem for the leader would be enhanced, simply by the straightforward approach and honesty of the statements. Of course, it does depend on the nature of the mistake. Here are a few situations where an admission of a mistake would actually lead to lower trust:

• If the blunder was out of sheer stupidity.
• If this was the third time the leader had done essentially the same thing.
• If the leader is prone to making mistakes due to shooting before aiming.
• If the leader simply failed to get information that she should have had.
• If the leader was appeasing higher-ups inappropriately.

Assuming none of the above conditions is present and the mistake is an honest one, admitting it publicly is often the best strategy. There is an interesting twist to this approach that has often baffled me.

Let’s suppose that I have gathered 100 supervisors into a room and asked them to answer the following question: “If you had made a mistake, which of the following two actions would have the greater chance of increasing the level of respect people have for you? (A) You call people together, admit your mistake, apologize, and ask people to help you correct the problem. (B) You try to avoid the issue, blame the problem on someone else, downplay the significance, pretend it did not happen, or otherwise attempt to weasel out of responsibility.”

Given those two choices, I am confident that at least 99 out of the 100 supervisors would say action (A) has a much greater probability of increasing trust and respect. The reason I am confident is that I have run that experiment dozens of times when working with supervisors in groups of all sizes and in all industries.

The irony is that when an error is subsequently made, roughly 80% of those same supervisors choose action more consistent with choice (B). The real conundrum is that if you were to tap the supervisor on the shoulder at that time and ask her why she chose (B) over (A), she would most likely say, “I didn’t want to admit my mistake because I was afraid people would lose respect for me.”

This pattern of response illustrates that in the classroom, all supervisors know how to improve respect and trust, but many of them tend to not use that knowledge when there is an opportunity to apply it in the field. It seems illogical. Perhaps in the heat of the moment, supervisors lose their perspective to the degree that they will knowingly do things that take them in the opposite direction from where they want to go.

I believe it is because the supervisors are ashamed of making a mistake. The irony is that when you admit an error, it has an incredibly positive impact on trust because it is unexpected. Perhaps this is one of the differences between IQ and Emotional Intelligence. Intellectually, supervisors know the best route to improve trust, but emotionally they are not mature or confident enough to take the risk. When you admit an error, it has a positive impact on trust because it is unexpected. As Warren Bennis in Old Dogs: New Tricks noted, “All the successful leaders I’ve met learned to embrace error and to learn from it.”

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Building Trust for Life

August 22, 2015

Early in my career, I was sent to Japan to negotiate a deal on a large supply of high capacity floppy disks.

I was nervous going over as my boss was busy preparing a law suit against many of the companies I would be negotiating with for dumping low capacity floppy disks on the US market.

On the flight, my buddy and I amused ourselves by making notes in a periodical that described the tension between our organization and the Japanese companies. We probably wrote some things that were too juicy for public consumption.

The trip went very well, and there was no acrimony with our hosts. Coming back from a long lunch on the final day, I noticed that I had left my briefcase open and the periodical was on top of the stack.

I realized that someone could have read and copied some of the private information, which would have damaged our case. I was terrified that my actions could possibly turn into a major gaffe with my boss.

As soon as I got back I went to my boss immediately and told him that I did something really stupid in Japan the prior week. He said, “What did you do?” My reply was,

“You would never know this unless I told you, but here is what happened…”

He looked up at me and said, “You know you are right, Bob. That’s not the smartest thing you ever did. The smartest thing you ever did was to tell me about it.”

From that day on for the next 25 years until he retired, I was golden boy to him. Reason: I blew myself in (admitted my mistake) when I didn’t have to.

Essentially I earned his trust for life by owning up to my indiscretion.

The lesson that I learned was that even though I did something admittedly dumb, I was able to turn it into a major step forward for my entire career. Most of us intellectually know that admitting a mistake is usually a trust-building action.

There are two kinds of mistakes where this would not be the case:

1. If the mistake is a repeat of one that was made once or many times in the past
2. If the mistake was so stupid that it revealed the person to be clueless

Most mistakes are things that simply did not go the way we planned, so they are easily forgiven when we openly admit to them. This method is particularly potent for people in power positions like top executives or politicians. Reason: From past experience most of us view power people as having a hard time admitting mistakes.

Exercise for you: Look for opportunities to admit your own vulnerability. Obviously it is a silly strategy to create mistakes so you can admit them, but we all do have lapses from time to time.

When you are smart enough to blow yourself in, it usually impacts your long term prognosis favorably. Try it and see if you agree.

Human beings normally have the capacity to forgive an occasional error if it was done with good intent. By admitting an error, you will give a powerful demonstration of your own personal integrity. That is a tangible sign of being a trustworthy person.

 

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to http://www.avanoo.com/first3/517