Leadership Barometer 29 Admitting Mistakes

December 16, 2019

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…”

If you were in the audience listening to this leader, how would you react? Chances are your trust 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 not produce higher 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 he 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 leaders 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 leaders would say action (A) has a much greater probability of increasing respect.

The reason I am confident is that I have run that experiment dozens of times when working with leaders in groups. The irony is that when an error is subsequently made, roughly 80% of the same leaders choose action more consistent with choice (B).

The real conundrum is that if you were to tap the leader on the shoulder at that time and ask him why he chose (B) over (A), he would most likely say, “I did not want to admit my mistake because I was afraid people would lose respect for me.”

This situation illustrates that, in the classroom, all leaders know how to improve respect and trust, but many of them tend to forget that knowledge 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, but 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.

Early in my career, I made a mistake on a trip to Japan and left some confidential information where it might have been viewed by those who could have used it against my company. Upon returning home, I went immediately to my boss and said, “I have to share that I did a dumb thing while I was in Japan last week.” He said, “What did you do”?

I told him the story of what happened and that my lapse could have caused some jeopardy for us. His response was, “Well you know, you are right, Bob. That’s not the smartest thing you ever did.” He said, “The smartest thing you ever did was to tell me about it.”

From that point on, I knew that he trusted me completely over the next 25 years. It was because I blew myself in when I didn’t have to. He would never have known what happened if I did not tell him.

Intellectually, many leaders know the best route to improve trust is to admit a mistake, 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.”

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