Sorry, I was wrong. Good leadership involves admitting your mistakes.
Noone likes admitting when they are wrong. As a manager or leader, it can be even more difficult to admit when you have made a mistake. Learn why it is important to admit when you are at fault and how it can help you become a better leader.
When people step into a leadership role, they are usually handed much more than a heightened sense of responsibility. Leadership often comes with an elevated regard, which can lead to a false perception, from both yourself and others, that you must always get things right.
While consistency and competency are valuable leadership skills to have – it is leaders and their strategies that take a company forward, making the “big picture” decisions – leaders are people too. By definition, they simply cannot always be right.
Another way leaders can and must help others move forward is by dealing with the consequences of their mistakes. Different leaders deal with acknowledging they are wrong in different ways, and it is not the mistakes they make, but the way they deal with them, that defines them and their companies. What makes it so difficult for leaders to admit their mistakes, and how might doing so benefit them and the companies they work for?
Mistakes by leaders have more widespread implications
When a person becomes a leader, they no longer speak solely for themselves, and this means that admitting a mistake can often have widespread implications for themselves and the people they represent. The act of apologising, within this context, actually becomes a political step, rather than simply a personal one. It is something that requires a lot more thought. Hence, there may be an element of compassion or rational thinking in the hesitance of many leaders who do not admit their mistakes. Although they might think they are helping others in the short-term, attempted cover-ups often lead to bigger problems further down the track.
When a team member makes a mistake, the repercussions are more likely to be limited, but when a company’s leadership makes mistakes, this can affect many people and have repercussions that last years. Due to the implications of admitting a mistake, leaders need to make sure that they are doing so for a good reason. They need to think strategically, weigh the pros and cons, and ensure they get the timing and delivery right. However, leaders should never confuse making a strategic apology with making a false one. A good apology is sincere and honest, regardless of the politics involved. Leaders are – or at least should be – primarily concerned with what is good for the people and companies they represent. Some of the first questions any leader should ask when considering an apology is, “How will admitting (or not admitting) my mistake have the potential to affect the company? How can it affect our employees, clients or shareholders?”
Leaders must learn from their mistakes to survive
Admitting a mistake helps both businesses and individuals to learn and grow. This is because by admitting the mistake isolates the problem and allows leaders to pool resources so that they can set about resolving the issue.
When Steve Blank was VP of Marketing at a tech company, he made a mistake that cost the company a small fortune. Instead of shifting the blame to another department, Steve made the decision to admit he was wrong and chose to ask for help in order to fix the problem as quickly as possible. By admitting his mistake, the company was quickly able to regroup and make decisions about what went wrong and the measures they needed to take to limit the negative impacts. If he had not said anything, the repercussions of the mistake might have been shifted onto the shoulders of another department, or worse, the mistake could have gone unresolved. Ultimately, the company would have suffered more to recuperate, and he would likely have gained no respect from his scapegoat.
A company that fosters a fear of making mistakes is often one that fails to test their limits, try new things or challenge itself. Leaders who are afraid of making mistakes usually choose the safest route, or hold off on making decisions at all, and this can work to the detriment of their business. Weighing up risks is an essential aspect of good leadership. However, an exaggerated fear of making a mistake prevents professionals from putting plans in place that deal with those very situations, putting them at a loss when a human error inevitably occurs.
Accountability is often limited to ground level staff
Most companies have measures in place to keep ground level staff and junior employees accountable for their actions. However, even junior and frontline leaders are left to their own devices more frequently. Sadly, as they progress through higher levels of management, leaders become less and less likely to have processes and people in place that keep them accountable.
Leaders need to recognise that employees are often aware of the mistakes of their superiors, as well as the attempts at hiding them, and so these cover-ups simply serve as justifications for employees to do the same. This can lead to resentment, and a climate where employees attempt to hide their mistakes from their employers. To prevent this happening, leaders must not only communicate transparently with their staff members, they must also take measures to network and communicate with other professionals and leaders who can mentor and keep them accountable. Ideally, a leader’s accountability network should include a blend of people from both within and outside of their company.
Some leaders perceive making mistakes as a threat to credibility and trust
Building trust is an important factor in growing a business, whether it is between colleagues and employees who need to work together on a daily basis, or between the business and its clients. There are many people who feel that admitting mistakes demonstrates weakness and destroys credibility, and therefore trust, but this is not the case at all. In fact, leaders who attempt to hide their mistakes put themselves and their companies in a very vulnerable position.
Trust is a form of power, and this power can be used to influence and guide others, whether they are customers or employees. Employees who become aware of leaders attempting to cover up their mistakes will quickly lose respect for them, and it will usually not be long before they look for positions elsewhere. Even clients will be more likely to understand and forgive businesses that admit and take measures to overcome customer service mistakes than those that are inevitably caught out trying to cover them up.
Making a deal with the devil – some leaders simply choose to live in denial
Despite all evidence that warns them not to, there are some leaders who continue to stand firm in the belief that it is career suicide to admit to a mistake. In these cases, the leader will do one of two things; they will try to cover up the mistake, or find a way to pass the blame.
The problem with failing to admit you were wrong is that it forces you to defend the poor decisions you made, even when you know better. In failing to admit you made a mistake, you remain stagnant and unmoving. You cannot learn from your mistake and move forward. It is the equivalent of sticking your head in the sand and hoping that the problem will just go away.
Admitting a mistake is a sign of strong leadership skills and allows for the “healing” to begin, whether this entails repairing relationships within a business setting, or financial reparations. It is a strong step forward; one that acknowledges the imperfection and humanity of leadership and builds a bridge between the mistake and the solution. No business should foster an environment where leaders are afraid of this.