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


Body Language 47 Conflict

September 28, 2019

Conflict brings out all kinds of body language that is rather easy to interpret. In this picture, we see one individual trying to make a point but the other person completely blocking out the information, at least on the surface.

There is a significant caution before I get into the analysis to follow. You cannot judge the totality of what is going on from a single picture or view of what is happening. The attached photo, may not tell the whole story.

Anger

One person is speaking in anger or frustration, and the other person is obviously shutting her out and rolling her eyes upward. It is clear that there is conflict going on, but it is not clear where, why, and how the conflict began. It probably predates this specific conversation.

Also, keep in mind that in any situation both parties are acting according to their own viewpoint of what is right to do. Each person is totally justified in her own mind, and each is frustrated.

Information

When trying to assess what is going on in communication between individuals, you need a lot more background and information to figure out why each person is acting the way she is.

Is there a history of conflict between these two people? Does the speaker or listener have a history of conflict with others in the office? If a person habitually brings conflict to situations, others will not want to interact with her or will interact with her badly.

When a person is listening to another individual, he or she normally “attends” to the other person by looking at least in his direction and often making eye contact. There will also be some additional attending gestures such as head nodding or head tilting to indicate attention.

Engage

The listener may be day dreaming or totally focusing on what he or she is going to say next, but at least there is some attempt to look engaged in the conversation. There can be less overt ways a listener can show disinterest in the conversation. For example, the listener may start reading email on her phone or pick up a catalog and start leafing through it. Another common ploy is to just put a blank look on her face and show no emotion or connection to the conversation.

Blocking

Occasionally, you will run into an individual such as in the picture who has no intention of listening and tries to show it as graphically as possible. Here we see the woman actually blocking eye contact with her hand and making a sarcastic eye roll to enhance the signal. She clearly does not want to listen, and the situation between the two people has escalated to a point where she has no qualms about sending strong signals.

Safety

When a listener withdraws, it can be a clue that the person does not feel safe in the situation or with the person who is speaking. The body language is defensive and may be a way of protecting the person from harsh or demeaning words.

Another reason for withdrawal may be that the listener knows from experience that the interchange will not be positive or productive. Negative interchanges can have long term repercussions.

Whatever the outward signal, if the listener is showing little interest in the input, it is best to think broadly about why you are getting this behavior or just go mute. As long as you are droning on, the listener is free to show absolutely no interest in what you have to say. Keep in mind that what the other person wanted you to do in the first place was shut up, so the awkward silence may get extremely long.

If the speaker is one who creates conflict and the listener wants to avoid it, there is probably nothing the listener can say that will be accepted by the speaker, so the listener has no real incentive to say anything.

Avoid threats

One thing to avoid is saying something like “Why don’t you look at me when I am speaking to you?” A question like that can be interpreted as threatening. The same problem occurs with talking louder or faster. These actions will not remedy the situation, and they can even make the situation worse.

Situations like this point to larger or ongoing problems that have resulted in a lack of trust between people. The trust level needs to be addressed before open and meaningful communications can begin. It is wise for both people to think back on the progression of the relationship that brought them to this point.

Either person can act to improve the situation. Either can say, “It seems like we are not communicating well. I don’t want to be in conflict with you. What can we do to repair this situation?” However, if there is a persistent instigator of conflict, that is the person who has the most responsibility to repair the relationship and rebuild trust. The other person may have tried many things in the past to reach out or express herself, was shut down, and now has given up.

Each person needs to examine her contribution to the ongoing issues.

Trust

Obviously a good, constructive conversation requires that both parties participate roughly equally. If the speaker does not let the listener respond, it is not a real conversation and creates a breach of trust. If the listener withdraws from the beginning, even if it is a result of prior bad experiences, it does nothing to heal the relationship.

Bilateral trust is vital for mature conversation. When you run into a situation like the ones described above, don’t try to badger the other person into paying attention, and if you are the person listening, don’t withdraw. Work through the issues that you have. Investigate what may be causing the issues, talk it through, and and try to rebuild trust. It can take time, but reestablishing an environment of trust is well worth the effort for both people and the entire organization.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on https://www.leadergrow.com/articles/categories/35-body-language or on this blog.