No one likes to say, ‘I made a mistake’, but admitting when you’re wrong can unlock the key to better leadership and a more engaged team.
Skip Prichard shares a running joke that he’s made so many mistakes he wrote a book about them.
The Book of Mistakes: 9 Secrets to Creating a Successful Future contains common mistakes that highly accomplished leaders have made during their careers.
As the CEO and president of OCLC, a global non-for-profit computer library service and research organisation, Prichard is no stranger to making mistakes either – in fact, it’s partly what inspired his book.
“Many years ago, one of my biggest mistakes was hiring the wrong person to fulfil a key role. Complicating my error was the fact that I was new to the job myself. Within days, it was obvious that the person was struggling; within weeks, it was obvious to me that we needed to make a change,” says Prichard.
After agonising over the decision, he did what he needed to do and let the employee go.
Then nervously anticipating the response from his team, Prichard was pleasantly surprised by their reaction.
“Instead of people rolling their eyes, questioning my decision-making, and wondering whether I was qualified for the leadership role I was in, I found the complete opposite [reaction],” he says.
“Someone said to me, ‘Most new leaders bring in their own people. You brought someone in and realised it was a mistake and did something about it so fast that it impressed us all.’”
Prichard’s example is a pertinent reminder that leaders who own up to their mistakes often reap great benefits by earning more respect from their team.
People respect leaders who embody authenticity, are open to learning from others, and don’t position themselves as being right 100 per cent of the time.
Employees consider having a leader who can admit they’re wrong to be an essential quality of strong leadership.
In an online study conducted by Dale Carnegie Training, while 81 per cent of nearly 3100 employees across 13 countries said having a leader who will admit to being wrong is important or very important, only 41 per cent thought their supervisors would actually own their mistakes.
If admitting you’re wrong is such an essential part of effective leadership and gaining respect from your team, why do we find it so hard?
Crash course in cognitive dissonance
Social psychologist Leon Festiger’s theory of cognitive dissonance – the discomfort that arises when we hold two contradictory thoughts or beliefs in our minds at once – might explain why people are so hesitant to admit their wrongs.
To take the example presented earlier, if Prichard views himself as a leader with excellent judgment, then the realisation that he made a poor hiring decision is likely to have given rise to cognitive dissonance, since it fractured his self-concept.
When people experience cognitive dissonance, they have one of two options:
- They either double down on their initial belief in what is known as ‘confirmation bias’ (i.e., they solely focus on the evidence that reaffirms their original position) or
- They modify their self-concept to integrate the new thought with the contradictory old one (i.e. In Prichard’s case, rather than attempting to justify why his poor hiring decision was a smart move, he took responsibility for his error even if it challenged his self-concept).
It probably won’t come as a shock to learn that most people veer towards the first option. This is because modifying one’s self-concept rattles our sense of identity, and can seem more confronting. It can easily bruise an intact ego.
Why would you admit you’re wrong?
Admitting you were wrong and working through the discomfort can lead to valuable learning opportunities.
Though Prichard’s judgment might have been clouded, his error presented a silver lining.
“It turned out that my failure, which I thought would decrease confidence in my leadership, actually increased it. It boosted my credibility because I took responsibility for the mistake and took action,” he says.
“And that’s often the way it is with mistakes. They instruct and guide us if we are open to the lessons. Instead of turning out as disasters, they often are the doors to breakthroughs.”
Andrew Oberthur similarly experienced a learning curve when he appointed a teacher to a particular role shortly after stepping into the position of principal at Brisbane Catholic Education himself.
He made the appointment without calling for expressions of interest from existing staff, and there was a teacher on staff who believed she should have been appointed or at least considered.
Oberthur says he technically operated outside protocols and had done the existing teacher a disservice.
“Even though I believe the outcome was right, I apologised to the teacher for breaking her trust and confidence in the process… Apologising was humbling and liberating when you learn that it is okay to make mistakes, especially if we can own them and apologise.
“This tells employees that the boss is human and hasn’t got to be right all the time.”
Exposing a more vulnerable side – i.e., that we are all fallible and prone to making mistakes from time to time – is one of the biggest benefits of owning up to our errors.
An approach of accepting fallibility also trickles down an organisation’s hierarchy. It breeds a culture in which it’s okay to make mistakes, and encourages others further down the hierarchy to feel comfortable in doing the same.
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Bouncing back from mistakes
Building a workplace in which employees are encouraged to own up to their mistakes – and more importantly, to learn from the error of their ways – begins during recruitment.
Anna Sheppard, founder and CEO of Bambuddha – a coaching program for business leaders – advises HR to “start off by ensuring you screen people well before offering them roles, get 360 references to make sure you can detect any egotistic traits or traits that will stop people from admitting they are wrong or reaching out for help.”
She refers to a book written by David Marcum and Steven Smith, What Makes Ego Our Greatest Asset (or Most Expensive Liability), which found that 53 per cent of businesspeople estimate ego costs their company between 6 and 15 per cent of annual revenue, and a further 21 per cent say it costs their business between 16 and 20 per cent.
The authors say inflated ego often breeds detrimental workplace behaviours including:
- Fear of making errors and burying mistakes
- Failure to challenge the status quo
- Hearing, but not listening
“It is incredibly detrimental for leaders in any business not to take ownership of their mistakes,” says Sheppard.
“Not being good at things is part of admitting your humanity, or letting go of your ego.”
An essential precursor for doing so, however, is creating a psychologically safe environment. People need to feel secure enough in their workplace to take a leap of faith, knowing that the consequences of a new approach going pear-shaped won’t have drastic consequences for their career.
Rather, a healthier and more productive approach is to view mistakes as valuable learning opportunities.
Oberthur says a growth mindset is encouraged among students to help them push through challenges, but it can also be “used to train adults to accept the limitations of some behaviours and decisions and that they can move beyond the ‘error’ or struggle and continue to learn and grow.”