Do You Have What it Takes to Admit Mistakes?
In a previous post, I talked about the confluence of leadership and truth, especially when the truth may hurt. The goal was hopefully to establish that this practice was not a “one-off” topic in your leadership library but a valid, accepted behavior that all good leaders understand, and great ones model. The purpose of today’s post is to delve a bit deeper into why we have difficulty with this type of communication, and how you can coach others through the process.
A word I have used repeatedly through this blog is “opportunity”. Mistakes are an opportunity for someone (or many depending on the magnitude) to raise their stock with their team. They can do this by showing the type of humility and openness that turns people on, rather than off. The “modeling” aspect of leadership is something that is a given within the educational literature. Modeling doesn’t always have to be about positive virtues or behaviors. A mistake presents a ready-made opportunity to show others how leaders model the values of the organization during both the best, and worst, of times.
If this might be one of those situations where there is blame to share, being the first to own your part is the type of critical breakthrough moment that all successful teams have, that later is referred to as the moment they moved into a new dimension of achievement. Ownership leads to truth which leads to decisions and actions based on what is really happening rather than only what is being said (or not said).
Mistakes happen in every facet of organizational leadership. However, human beings are unfortunately hard-wired from birth to equate admissions of error with the general repudiation of their world view, in its entirety. Thus, admitting wrong is a less-than-six degrees-of-separation from submitting to an assault on our psychological sense of self. Somewhere within those degrees, a “fight or flight” reflex kicks in and we find ourselves defending the absurd, because deep down, we are fighting for our own sense of mental self-survival.
Even more interesting is how we react to the admitter of guilt. Does your overall opinion change when someone you know to be wrong admits it? Obviously we expect them under the most optimistic view to step up and take the blame but what happens when they really do? If you are like most people, you have a generally more favorable view of someone who admits mistakes. But, when the shoe is on your foot, is that on your mind? Cognitive dissonance is when someone holds to two competing beliefs simultaneously. It can’t happen for long without choosing which belief you are going to try to erode to a point you can live with. Not a happy state, if that ends up being denial.
Working your way through the politics of truth-telling will ensure that at some point, you will be confronted with your own mistake. To ascribe to the view that a leader must tell the truth, such as to peers and subordinates about their own performance, is something the prospective leader can grasp without pain. To simultaneously then be unable to face the truth personally will eventually produce the type of cognitive dissonance that motivated Albert Camus to note, “…humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd…”