Tag Archives: continuous improvement

Some surprising truths about admitting to our mistakes

Is playing the blame game really necessary?

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

When Leaders shouldn’t give hope


Napolean Bonaparte is said to have characterised leaders as “dealers of hope”; but to my mind there are times when leaders should consider the impacts of providing hope to their people.  I argue that hope isn’t always what people need.  Too many leaders might actually think that their job is look after and nursemaid the people in their “care”.  In fact people within organisations do think this way as they consider the role of the leader is one where they “protect us from uncertainty”, ” provide the solutions” and “make the pain go away”.  In today’s world of uncertainty and the speed at which change happens people need to be aware of reality and sometimes giving people too much hope can keep them from creatively helping to solve the organisational problems.

What’s that you say: a coach taking hope away?

I remember coaching a client of mine and we had hit a dead end in the work that we were doing together. I said to him in a most serious manner “You need to give up hoping.” He looked at me aghast and I could see that his thinking wheels were engaged as he grappled with what I had just said.  Now anybody who has worked with me will know that I am probably one of the worlds greatest optimists, so hearing this from me must have been quite a shock for him.  I went onto explain to him that his hope was the one thing that was keeping him stuck.  It kept him from thinking about other options and other actions that he could be taking that would benefit him and his organisation.  At the end of our time together he reflected back to that session and remarked that this was a turning point in our work.  I remember feeling quite relieved as at the time I felt like I was taking a risk by being so challenging, but now I’m glad I took that risk.

Caution: don’t celebrate too soon

So hope used in the wrong circumstances can be most damamging.  Another example of this was a consulting client of mine who had embarked on an organisational change programme.  I noticed that  one of their performance-limiting patterns was that they were very quick to call victory on some of their change efforts.  This gave them an overly optimistic view of their reality.  I took one of the change managers to one side and pointed out one or two areas where improvement was needed.  They seemed to be very dismissive of my suggestions so I challenged them by feeding back my feelings and observations.  I could tell they were rather perturbed by my observation and aggressively asked me “why are you telling me all this”.  They were upset and felt that I was raining on their parade.  They wanted to report good things to their line manager and sponsors and felt that I was being critical and negative.  Again – me critical and negative, what a laugh.  (It did demonstrate again to me how people can get it so wrong when they don’t check out their assumptions.)  I pointed out that I had a personal code of ethics that I was committed to and if I felt that it was in my clients best interests to challenge their thinking or behaviours, then I had a duty to do so.  I mean, lets face it I’m a human as well and I like people to say nice things about me and sing my praises.  But my worry was that they would lose the impetus for change if they felt they had achieved their goal already.

Leaders as a provider of hope

I personally feel that leaders also have a responsibility to allow their people to feel a little pain.  Now that doesn’t mean they should go about purposely inflicting pain on their followers and intentionally making them feel bad.  Leaders will have a hard time moving people in the direction of change because without a little pain, people will have no reason or desire to change.  This is why I admire Greg Dyke so much  when he was Director General of the BBC. He was a leader with balls who laid it on the line for his people and was honest with them about the changes that needed to be made.  He didn’t try to sugar coat the changes that needed to be made in order to make it all the more palatable for people.  But he did it with heart and with the best interests at heart for his people.  I am unaware of any other leader where people have walked out in mass protest in support of him when he was removed from his position at the BBC.  So he must have done something right.

A final thought …

So am I saying that it is wrong to give hope? No.  I am saying it is contextual.  A leader needs to know when providing hope will be a good thing and wont become a reason to do nothing.  I think that if hope is delivered in a way that lets people know that things will get better – but only if we change what we are doing now.  Being hopeful is a wonderful frame of mind but if its not followed up by focused action that will give good cause for hopefulness then it becomes a mechanism of delusion.  Leader beware!

About the Author

Mark Buchan is an Agile consultant  and Leadership Coach who does give his clients hope.  Mark’s work as an executive coach helps his leaders to be able to master their own psychology so that they can deliver exceptional change for their organisation.

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