I believe that one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader is to own your mistakes. Nobody is perfect, and therefore it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes. Often, holding a leadership or management position means that these mistakes are magnified and have a impact on many more people.
So why admit your mistakes?
Wouldn’t this be showing a weakness? Wouldn’t it show that your infallible? Won’t people judge you closer? Surely, you’ll lose their trust and respect.
In fact, in my experience I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. Being able to admit to your mistakes creates the impression of a more confident leader, gives you the freedom to take more risks and helps foster a culture of trust and respect.
In the “5 Dysfunctions of a Team”, Patrick Lencioni describes the common issues which lead to team failure. The base of this pyramid is “absence of trust”. Lencioni goes onto explain that individuals need to achieve vulnerable trust, a trust that the intentions of their peers are good which in turn gives people the freedom to express different opinions or ideas.
As desirable as this may be, it is not enough to represent the kind of trust that is characteristic of a great team. It requires team members to make themselves vulnerable to one another, and be confident that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them. The vulnerabilities I’m referring to include weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes and requests for help.
As ‘soft’ as all of this might sound, it is only when team members are truly comfortable being exposed to one another that they begin to act without concern for protecting themselves. As a result, they can focus their energy and attention completely on the job at hand, rather than on being strategically disingenuous or political with one another.
Owning your mistakes will act as a catalyst for building trust in your teams. By going first and showing your vulnerability, you implicitly give permission to others to do the same. Building vulnerable trust creates a basis for better decision making and team-work, as described by Lencioni.
When you’re accountable for a decision, you’re the person who’s responsible for explaining the reasoning behind those decisions. Many people are afraid of taking accountability as they fear the consequences of getting something wrong. By freely admitting your mistakes, you show that being accountable for something isn’t a position which people should fear.
Removing the fear encourages others to make themselves accountable for decisions. When this happens, decisions get driven down to the lowest rank in the organisation and as a consequence the cohesion between the group improves and your role as a leader changes to that of an enabler. You move from the person making all the decisions to the person who continually improves the understanding of the context within which decisions are made so that others can make those decisions.
As more individuals take accountability the organisation grows with greater autonomy and empowerment. Due to the strong correlation between autonomy and motivation, this has a positive affect on the happiness, engagement and motivation of the group. The sharing of accountability also improves organisational efficiency as you remove yourself as a bottleneck to decision making.
Building a culture of experimentation and learning
A team that isn’t experimenting and learning is a team that is destined for mediocrity, and eventually will be a team that fails. There’s a lovely quote which sums this up.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
Whilst “getting what you’ve always got” might have been a reasonable way to do business in the past, the increased pace of change and lower barriers to entry mean that continuing with the status quo is likely to result in you or your industry being disrupted.
To stave off the possibility of something like this hitting your business you need to continue to innovate and experiment. The process of successful innovation and experimentation is built upon the shared understanding that most experiments will fail. All innovation carries a degree of risk, and it’s unlikely that anyone will be willing to address this risk in a culture that doesn’t tolerate failure.
Owning your mistakes shows that when failure occurs, it’s addressed and celebrated as an opportunity to learn from. Building this learning culture will encourage innovation and experimentation within the team. People will be more willing to take risks, knowing that the consequences of getting something wrong won’t result in career limiting repercussions.
Enabling this learning loop in the organisation will also give the tools to make better decisions in the future. Someone that can realise when they make a mistake, admit to it, and then learn from it becomes a powerful agent for change within an organisation. The act of making mistakes and surviving them adds to our experience of handling situations, which can be drawn upon the next time a similar decision point is reached.
Owning your mistake
Those are the reasons why admitting to your mistakes is a good thing to do, so next we should address how you handle this situation when it inevitably occurs (and it will, no-one is infallible).
Your reaction to your own mistakes will have an impact on the way your organisation culture develops. When the time comes, you need to step up, and be honest about your mistake. Apologise, resisting the natural urge to excuse yourself by attempting to explain your rationale. Also, don’t look to blame someone else - you need to show accountability.
Importantly, follow up your apology with a clear plan showing how you’ve learnt, and how you’ll correct the situation or ensure you don’t end up making the same mistake again.
Last week, I hosted a talk at our department all-hands. During one session, I needed to talk about a new team being set up in the group. I’d had feedback that my approach in building this new team lacked transparency which in turn enabled the rumour mill to go into overdrive.
I opened this talk with an apology for the lack of clarity and transparency in staffing the new team. Following the all-hands, I was stopped by one of our engineers who gave me feedback that it was one of the first times that he’d seen a leader admit a mistake, and that in doing so I’d shown my authenticity. He also offered himself up to help me in opening up decision making more. Had I taken another route, either by denying the issue, attempting to explain it away or worse of all, thrown someone else under the bus, I’d doubt that anything else I said that day would have been heard.