Leadership Barometer 9 Admit Mistakes

July 29, 2019

Nobody likes to admit a mistake, but it can be a very powerful way to build trust, especially for leaders.

There are lots of ways to gauge the quality of a leader. One of my favorites is how readily the leader is willing to publicly admit a mistake.

Admits 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 “mea culpa” is a huge deposit in the trust account. Of course, 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 resonated positively with my subordinates.

Reason: people do not expect leaders to apologize, because it is rarely done. You catch people off guard when you do it, and it has a major impact on trust.

Apologizing to your superior

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 or some serious damage might 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 her.

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 then 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.” He then said, “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, pretend it didn’t happen, or use some other method to try to weasel out of it. Often these actions serve to lower trust.

Obviously it is a stupid strategy to intentionally make mistakes so you can admit them to other people. For all of us, mistakes will happen naturally from time to time.

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 on your career and a verification of 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.