It takes courage and humility to admit when we are wrong or that we have been the cause of some upset. So is it a lack of courage or personal pride that keeps leaders from admitting they were wrong or made a mistake? Argyris, in his book overcoming organisational defenses (1990), suggests that what is really going on with leaders is that they are engaged in a game of saving face or to put it another way avoiding embarrassment. This behaviour is extremely dysfunctional on so many levels.
Firstly, if the reasons for the failure are not attributable to ourselves and we engage in a witch-hunt to find the “culprit”; this activity distracts us away from discovering and subsequently solving the root cause of the problem. As a result we may become more concerned with dishing out justice rather than engaging in an activity of learning.
Secondly, if we go about looking for the “culprit” we are subconsciously saying that the problem was out of our control. A recent example of this can be found in the banking crisis where the fault was identified as “too many people defaulting on their mortgage payments” rather than accept the responsibility that maybe is was risky lending practices that was the true root cause. This is damaging because what we are saying to our stakeholders (shareholders, employees or otherwise) is that we are not in control. This has a knock on effect of damaging the trust that is placed in an organisation’s leadership. It may also indicate to our stakeholders that we lack capability, which is quite ironic because the reason for looking for a scapegoat is to demonstrate that we are capable and “… if it wasn’t for so-and-so this wouldn’t have happened.”
If we don’t play the blame game – then what?
The blame game is really quite a pointless activity on so many levels because if we truly understand the root causes of our organisational failures we would quickly discover that rarely is one individual or department solely to blame for a mistake. The failures tend to be systemic ones rather than truly simplistic cause and effect relationships.
So what is the solution instead of seeking out the culprit? In my opinion it’s about looking within; either within ourselves or within our own department to understand how we might have contributed to the mistake. If we were to make this the first part of the learning process it has all sorts of implicit and explicit benefits:
The benefits of admitting our mistakes
It demonstrates courage: Who doesn’t want to follow a brave and courageous leader? Admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility as a leader takes extraordinary courage. It also demonstrates humility and sets us apart from mediocre leadership where ego, looking good and believing in our infallibility are more important that the benefits we will accrue from learning from our mistakes.
It demonstrates our humanity: People are people so the cliché goes and as people we anticipate or expect people will make mistakes from time to time. Admitting our own mistakes qualifies us as a member of the human race and it turn allows other people to step forward when they have made a mistake.
It sets an example for our followers: leading on from the previous point as leaders we need to be aware of the example that we are setting because our followers will in turn follow our example. There is little stock placed in a leader who says one thing “we need to learn from our mistakes” and proceeds to cover up their mistakes maybe giving the message that they are either perfect (mistakes, what mistakes?) or that “the rules don’t count for me”. If integrity, truth and honour are values of your organisation, then leading by example should be a behaviour that demonstrates that we are living our values not just espousing values that sound good.
It garners greater respect: I am often amazed at the apparent lack of humility that leaders demonstrate. Some organisational cultures value a more macho or machismo approach, but in the long run this does little to engender the respect and loyalty of the followers in that organisation. Leaders who demonstrate humility and a willingness to accept responsibility as opposed to giving a bollocking to “wrong-doers” only serves to make people hide or cover-up their mistakes. This also has an impact in that leaders are then unable to make a decision call to limit the damage or fall-out from unintentional mistakes often resulting in even greater damage being caused. Admitting mistakes and learning from them separates extraordinary leaders from mediocre ones and earns the respect of our colleagues, families, friends and stakeholders.
It engenders more trusting relationships: The traditional style of leadership may have perceived that it was a sign of weakness to admit our mistakes or shortcomings; instead it is now often seen as a sign of emotional maturity in our leaders when they hold themselves accountable rather than “passing the buck”. This trust will in turn strengthen our relationships as our stakeholders will translate these actions into somebody who is honest and is worthy of our trust and loyalty.
It creates greater organisational value: If shareholder value is of greater importance than say personal or organisational learning then the research carried out by Lee et al (2004) may be of interest to you. The research carried out over a 20 year period indicates that investors and shareholders place a greater value on organisations that look to rectify their mistakes from within as opposed to blaming external factors. Investors, unsurprisingly, place a greater value on leadership that assumes responsibility and control.
An Agile leader is a continually growing leader and one that continues to inspire their followers so if we are interested in creating an Agile organisation, one that holds continuous improvement and learning as a value, then admitting our mistakes is a key behaviour to promote growth. It may not be easy at first as it will take courage and determination to overcome our defensive behaviours, but in the long run I believe the benefits are worth it. Don’t you agree?
Argyris, C. (1990), Overcoming Organisational Defences. Prentice Hall. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Overcoming-Organizational-Defenses-Facilitating-Learning/dp/0205123384/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1332407757&sr=8-1
Lee, F. et al (2004), Mea Culpa: Predicting Stock Prices From Organizational Attributions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin December 2004 vol. 30 no. 12 1636-1649. http://psp.sagepub.com/content/30/12/1636.abstract