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


Avoiding Drama

March 11, 2012

I participated in an interesting discussion in an online class on teamwork recently. The students were lamenting that drama in the workplace is common and very disruptive to good teamwork. While drama is just part of the human condition, I am sure you have experienced unwanted drama and wished there were ways to reduce it.

First, one precaution; There are various different kinds of drama and many different symptoms and sources. In this article, I am discussing the most common kind of drama in the workplace. This is where a person acts out his or her daily frustrations in ways that create chaos and loss of focus that hurt the productivity, effectiveness, and teamwork of the group. I am not addressing the serious drama caused by mental illness or tragic events.

Let’s take a look at the seeds of this problem to identify some mitigating strategies. Drama is a result of people who feel they are not being heard. If an individual believes his or her opinions are valued and considered in the decision process, then there is less need for drama. If the culture is real, and people are not playing games with each other, then the distractions of drama will be significantly reduced.

It is a function of leaders to establish a culture where people see little need for drama in order to be a vital part of the real action. Here are some tips that leaders can use to reduce drama in their organization:

1. Improve the level of trust. High trust groups respect people, so there is a feeling of inclusiveness that does not require high profile actions to get attention.

2. Anticipate needs. Be proactive at sensing when people need to be heard and provide the opportunity before they become frustrated.

3. Respect outliers. When someone’s view is contrary to the majority, there may be valid points to consider. Do not ignore the valuable insights of all people.

4. Hear people out and consider their input seriously. Positive body language is essential to show respect for all people.

5. Work on your own humility. Climbing down off your pedestal means that you are more willing to be on an equal footing with others.

6. Admit mistakes. You gain respect when you are honest about the blunders that you make. People will feel less like acting out in response to your foibles if they see you willing to be vulnerable.

7. Reinforce people well. Providing sincere praise is one way to show respect. This reduces people’s tendency to say “Hey don’t forget about me over here.”

We must also realize that some people are world class at creating drama. For these people it is a kind of sport. They do it to gain inappropriate attention or just to be disruptive. These people need coaching to let them know their antics are not really helping drive the goals of the organization. The leader needs to provide feedback about the issue and set the expectation of improvement. If the drama continues and is disruptive, then the person may be better off in some other organization doing a different function.

Drama is all around us on a daily basis, but good leadership can mitigate the negative impact and keep bad habits from becoming an organizational albatross.


Fail More Often

January 29, 2012

In our society, it is considered a bad thing to fail. From our earliest memory, we are all taught to succeed at what we try. It does not matter if it is taking a few steps on wobbly legs or negotiating an international merger of two huge organizations, we are conditioned that success is the goal and failure is anathema. Through this conditioning, we are taught to feel great when we have a success and to feel awful when we fail.

Take away the stigma of the word, and a failure is simply an attempt to do something that did not work out as planned. In the learning process, we obtain more information, momentum, resolve, inspiration, insight, and knowledge when we fail than when we succeed. To succeed is to get something done, but we have not learned very much. For example, without the corrective adjustments by ourselves and our parents, we would never learn to walk or talk. It is the constant reshaping of past tries that cause our forward progress.

I think it is time to embrace failure and to stop feeling bad about it. What we need in life is more at-bats rather than more home runs. Each time we go for something new, we risk failure, but not taking that risk is a bigger problem, because we block our own advancement.

The most often-quoted example of this theory is the story of Thomas Edison, who found that carbonized bamboo filaments worked well for his light bulb. His most famous quotation is, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 things that won’t work.” He also acknowledged that by being creative while simultaneously inventive, he was able to develop things that seemed like serendipity, but they were really the culmination of a lot of hard work and numerous failures. He once said, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to doesn’t mean it’s useless.”

The key to embracing failure is to let go of the stigma and seek out the learning potential in every activity. They ought to teach a course on failing in grammar school. Kids should be introduced to the theory that to fail, as long as something was learned, is the route to eventual success. Instead, we hammer home the idea that to fail is to not live up to expectations. Children learn to fear rather than embrace failure. That attitude permeates our society, and it has a crippling effect on every organization.

Another aspect of failure is the idea that we never really fail until we quit trying. As long as we are stretching to achieve a goal, we have the potential for success. I love the quotation from Vince Lombardi who said, “We never lost a game, but sometimes we just ran out of quarters.”

I believe there needs to be good judgment when deciding how long to persevere. I do not think Winston Churchill was right when he said “Never, never, never, quit.” At some point, it is time to learn a lesson and leave the battlefield. It is okay to have a discarded scheme or to recognize a blind alley and cut your losses. It is important to recognize when we have run out of quarters, but it is wrong to quit trying prematurely. I think the difference between those two mindsets is the difference between genius and mediocrity.

I am not advocating that we fail on purpose. Doing things right should always be the objective. What I want to champion is that the only thing to avoid is making the same mistake over and over again. Some people focus on being busy just to have something to do. Thomas Edison had a quote for that too. He said, “Being busy does not always mean real work.”

Try having a “Experience Award” at work for daring to risk. Honor people who stretch and try but fail, as long as they learn from the experience. Doing this will seem unorthodox and “over the top” to many stuffy managers who will not tolerate things that are irregular. Too bad these managers are leaving real creativity off the table.


Recovering After a Mistake

December 19, 2010

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 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, but I am very grateful you told me.” 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?”

Most 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 or blame someone else. 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. 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

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.