Leadership Barometer 48 Recovering From a Mistake

May 1, 2020

I have always been fascinated by mistakes. As human beings, we share several things in common; making mistakes is one of them. The vast majority of the time we blunder into mistakes innocently.

Obviously, if we could see mistakes coming, we would take steps to avoid them. The mistake is usually like a mouse trap that is sprung on us while our focus was on something else.

The interesting thing to me is how we react after a mistake. It is here that I learned a great lesson in leadership and trust. The lesson came years ago when I was a young manager.

I was in Japan negotiating a deal for some equipment. I had inadvertently left some material on a table while a group went out for lunch. Some of the material would have been damaging to our negotiating position if it were leaked to the other side.

Upon returning from lunch, I realize that I had left things in a state where they could have been copied and later used against us. I did not know if anybody actually did copy some pages, but I felt horrible about my lapse.

Upon returning to the home office in the US, I immediately reported to my boss’s office and said, “Dick, you would never know this if I didn’t tell you, but I made a mistake when I was in Japan this week.”

He looked up at me with a smirk and said, “Whatd’ya do?” I explained my lapse in detail. He said, “You’re 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 moment on, I felt a much higher level of trust and respect for me in the eyes of my boss. I believe it gave my career a significant and lasting boost.

The key point in the above lesson was that he really would never have known anything about it if I had not admitted the gaff. It was the unprompted admission that spoke much louder than the sin.

Since then I have studied the impact of admitting mistakes for leaders, and come away with some observations.

Let’s suppose that I have gathered several leaders into a room and asked them to answer the following question: “After you make a mistake, in terms of maximizing respect for you, is it better to admit it or try to finesse it?”

Nearly all leaders would say admitting the mistake has a much greater probability of increasing respect. The irony is that when subsequently a mistake is made, most of these same leaders choose to hide it, blame someone else, or pretend it didn’t happen.

The real conundrum is that if you were to tap the leader on the shoulder at that time, you would hear “I did not want to admit my mistake because I was afraid people would lose respect for me.”

This situation illustrates that intellectually, most leaders know how to improve respect and trust after a mistake, but many of them tend to not act that way when there is an opportunity to apply it in the field. It seems illogical.

Perhaps in the heat of the moment, leaders 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 they are ashamed of making a mistake.

When you admit an error, it has an incredibly positive impact on trust, because it is unexpected. This is especially true if you are a leader.

Perhaps this is one of the differences between IQ and Emotional Intelligence. Intellectually, leaders 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.”

Respect is not always increased if a mistake is admitted. For example, here are three circumstances where admitting a mistake would reduce respect and trust:

1. If this was the third time you had made the same mistake
2. If the mistake was so stupid it reveals you as being clueless
3. If the mistake was made in an effort to hurt someone or part of a sinister plot

If you find yourself making these kinds of mistakes, it would be wise to reconsider if you are right for a leadership position at all.

The vast majority or mistakes are honest lapses where something unexpected happened. For these so-called “honest” mistakes, it is far better to admit them and ask for forgiveness than to try to finesse the situation or blame others or circumstances. It is a tangible demonstration of your integrity, and that improves trust.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind


7 Ways to Improve Your Integrity

August 12, 2012

Trust and integrity are inextricably linked. I believe before you can trust other people, you must trust yourself. That means you must not be fighting with yourself in any way, which is a pretty tall order. Integrity is about what you do or think when nobody else in the world would know. It is an interesting topic because it is very difficult to determine your own personal level of integrity.

We all justify ourselves internally for most of the things we do. We have it figured out that to take a pencil home from work is no big deal because we frequently do work from home. We drive 5 mph over the speed limit because not doing so would cause a traffic hazard while everyone else is going 10 mph over the limit. We taste a grape at the grocery store as a way to influence our buying decision. When we are short changed, we complain, but when the error is in the other direction, we pocket the cash. We lie about our age. We sneak cookies. If you have never done any of these things, let me know, and I will nominate you for sainthood.

There are some times in life when we do something known by us to be illegal, immoral, or dumb. We do these things because they are available to us and we explain the sin with an excuse like “nobody’s perfect.” I guess that is true that all people (except newborns) have done something of which to be ashamed. So what is the big deal? Since we all sin, why not relax and enjoy the ride?

The conundrum is where to draw a moral line in the sand. Can we do something that is wrong and learn from that error so we do not repeat it in the future? I think we can. I believe we have not only the ability but the mandate to continually upgrade our personal integrity. Here are seven ideas that can help the process:

1. Reward yourself – When you are honest with yourself about something you did that was wrong, that is personal growth, and you should feel great about that.

2. Intend to change – Once you have become conscious of how you rationalized yourself into doing something unethical, vow to change your behavior in that area.

3. Reinforce others – Sometimes other people will let you know something you did, or are about to do, is not right. Thank these people sincerely, for they are giving you the potential for personal growth.

4. Check In with yourself – Do a scan of your own behaviors and actions regularly to see how you are doing. Many people just go along day by day and do not take the time or effort to examine themselves.

5. Recognize Rationalization – We all rationalize every day. By simply turning up the volume on your conscience, you can be more alert to the temptations before you. That thought pattern will allow more conscious choices in the future.

6. Break habits – Many incorrect things come as a result of bad habits. Expose your own habits and ask if they are truly healthy for you.

7. Help others – Without being sanctimonious, help other people see when they have an opportunity to grow in integrity. Do this without blame or condemnation; instead do it with love and helpfulness.

We need to build our own internal trust so we can trust other people more. To do that, it is important to follow the seven ideas listed above. These ideas will allow you to move consciously in a direction of higher personal integrity.