Leadership Barometer 69 Admitting a Mistake

October 27, 2020

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Admit 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 “mia culpa” is a huge deposit in the trust account. Sure, 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 hit a home run on the shop floor.

Reason: people do not expect leaders to apologize because it is almost never done. You catch people off guard when you do it, and it has a major impact on trust.

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 unless some serious damage would 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 him.

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 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, 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, or use some other method to try to weasel out of it. Often these actions serve to lower trust. 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 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.

Do You Pad Your Numbers?

March 29, 2014

Tax calculator and penWe had an interesting discussion in one of my MBA classes last week. I asked the students to discuss the practice of padding estimates.

At first, most of the students said it was a wrong thing to do from an ethical perspective. One should tell the truth at all times and not play games trying to outwit the system.

On closer inspection, it became obvious that adding contingencies to estimates is not only ubiquitous, it is prudent business. Still, I believe there are some precautions to be followed, and this article is for the purpose of discussing these.

We are all familiar with the manager who is reaching the end of the fiscal year trying to encourage people to spend the budgeted money on anything, justified or not, just so the next year’s budget would have less chance of being cut.

It is a real trust buster for a frugal and careful boss to throw a lavish year-end party in an obvious attempt to somehow spend the full allotment. People see through the ploy, and it adds to the feeling that we are “playing games with upper management.”

Padding estimates for project work is so common that a project with no uplifts is suspect. The honest approach to reducing risk of overspending on projects is to allow a “contingency” line in the budget.

This practice recognizes that there will be several surprises during the course of a project, and although some surprises may be happy ones, my experience is that about 70% of them mean spending more than the original plan.






Some managers advocate no contingency line item, but I think that is a dangerous practice because it encourages covert padding.

As the conversation became deeper, one individual asked, what happens if you are the only person in the pack who is not padding and everybody else is including contingencies either overtly or not.

This is reminiscent of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” experiment, where the optimal result occurs only when individuals elect to cooperate with each other and trust the other person will cooperate with them.

In this case, upper management needs to set the tone of no padding of budgets. Of course, since padding is by nature a secret event, it usually becomes a cat and mouse game.

Top managers unwittingly contribute to padding when they take a look at submitted budgets and demand a 30% cut before approval. Lower level managers quickly get the idea that in order to have adequate funding to do the job, they need to submit an initial budget that is inflated by at least 30%. That kind of escalation goes on in projects every day.

There are some mechanical systems invented to reduce the tendency of padding budgets. Zero-based Budgeting is one such technique.

This is where you start with a clean sheet each year regardless of the former pattern of spending. The technique sounds good on the surface, but it normally does not last longer than one cycle, just ask Jimmy Carter.

Reason: Even though a zero-based budget starts out with a clean sheet, managers have their historical files for comparison, so ultimately the good intention to start fresh breaks down.

The best antidote for padding is a culture of trust. If top leaders begin to stress that we are telling the truth here and not playing games with each other, then things may begin to change.

It may take several cycles, and top leaders need to be incredibly patient with people and consistent in their message, but it is possible to get to a real situation on budgeted funding.