Leading Through Mistakes

Article by , November 4, 2020

Leading Through Mistakes

Business leaders today are not exempt from making mistakes. While we like to believe their judgment is getting better, certain behaviors make them vulnerable to err, such as mindset failures, delusions, mismanagement, and patterns of unsuccessful (or poor) behavior. Our wishful thinking, denial, and other forms of avoidance often prevent us from seeing their errors—or the mistakes we make.

We live in a celebrity culture where leaders, and especially CEOs, are expected to be perfect examples. They are held up as icons. We don’t like to admit they have flaws, or that the traits that make them special can also lead to failure.

To be sure, we crave heroic leaders who we can look up to and derive a sense of safety and security. We can’t do this when we see their flaws, so we contribute to the heroic myth and enable the leader to plunge full steam ahead, right or wrong. We must abandon this hero-worship.

There is a fine line between right and wrong, and like all humans, leaders are capable of swinging back and forth. They can be great leaders and fallible human beings. When great leaders make a mistake, when they realize they were wrong, they take appropriate action.

So why don’t some leaders admit when they have made a mistake?

Fear of Mistakes

Fear of mistakes remains a common challenge for leaders today. This fear fuels our drive to avoid losing face, at all costs. But the truth is, admission of error does less to harm our credibility than ongoing denial.

According to social psychologist Adam Fetterman, a researcher at the University of Texas El Paso, “When we do see someone admit that they are wrong, the wrongness admitter is seen as more communal, more friendly.” When someone promptly admits to being wrong, people do not think they are less competent.

Studies also reveal that some people are more willing to admit when they are wrong: they publicly acknowledge that their prior belief or attitude was inaccurate. The researchers called this a willingness to admit wrongness, or WAW. In three studies, they created scenarios to measure WAW, and found a correlation with agreeableness, honesty/humility, and openness to experience.

What is a Meaningful Mistake?

At its core, being wrong requires acceptance that our understanding may be limited, out-of-date, or simply fallible. This requires intellectual humility. According to social and personality psychologist Mark Leary, “Intellectual humility is simply the recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong.”

This is not about a lack of self-esteem, confidence, or being a pushover. People with intellectual humility think methodically. They are open to the possibility that they may be wrong and seek to learn from the experience, knowledge, and expertise of others.

The intellectually humble have an active curiosity about their blind spots. When they are wrong, they are more likely to admit it. They understand that when we admit we’re wrong, we can grow closer to the truth. This makes their mistakes meaningful.

In today’s complex world, this is not always easy. Even great leaders can fall into any of the five common blind spot categories:

  1. Experience
  2. Personality
  3. Values
  4. Strategy
  5. Conflict

Great leaders recognize and acknowledge that they have cognitive blind spots. They also carefully examine and choose their convictions. When they identify errors, mistakes, or new understanding, they promptly admit it.

Meaningful Mistakes in Organizations

The practice of making meaningful mistakes can be mastered as a corporate culture. This requires support from leadership: proper mindset and models.

In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (HarperCollins 2010), author Kathryn Schulz describes two models of wrongness:

  1. Pessimistic model: errors are dangerous, humiliating, distasteful, and un-fun.
  2. Optimistic model: errors are a surprise of bafflement, fascination, excitement, hilarity, and delight.

With the second model, innovation is more likely to occur. This culture is highly agile, adaptable, and productive.

Leadership and Meaningful Mistakes

“I err therefore I am.” – St. Augustine

Let’s face it: no one is immune from making a mistake. But, we can avoid making matters worse by taking appropriate action.

To be sure, mistakes vary in degree, and depending on the consequences, additional actions may be required, including consulting with a legal professional. But when we make an insensitive comment, send a message without having all the facts or consider how it will be received, or berate a subordinate (or colleague) publicly, we must promptly acknowledge our mistake and make amends. It’s time for a good apology.

Bad v. Good Apology

When we hear an apology, we know if it’s bad or good. But offering an apology is a different experience.

A bad apology justifies or explains away our error. It paints a picture of why we did what we did or why we should be forgiven. It might sound like: “I didn’t mean to ___, rather, I was only attempting to___”, or “This only happened because I thought ___, please understand where I’m coming from.”

Of course, trying to explain our actions is natural. But a bad apology rationalizes our error, even for the leader mistake.

A good apology has four elements:

  1. Focuses on the other person(s) and how they have been affected by your mistake. It doesn’t assume you know how they feel or what they need, rather, it asks. When leaders truly listen—and do not argue—they open the door to making real amends.
  2. Takes responsibility. It doesn’t distribute, dilute, or delegate responsibility. It acknowledges an error and remorse. A good apology sounds like: “I am sorry. I was wrong.”
  3. Makes amends. After listening and understanding how other(s) were impacted, it addresses what can, is, and will be done to correct the mistake.
  4. Builds trust. After reflection and identification of lessons learned, it communicates what you will do differently in the future.

Meaningful mistakes require reflection, without obsession. Understand how you contributed to the mistake without getting hung up on “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” This type of thinking is not uncommon when the stakes are really high and we take on full responsibility for the error (rightfully or not). If this happens to you, a qualified coach can help you break the cycle of rumination and get back on track with productive self-reflection.

Employees and Meaningful Mistakes

When we feel responsible for an organization, and we’re confronted with the consequences of a mistake of an employee, we are quick to react with judgment and condemnation. After all, leaders are not immune from being wrong.

Peter Bregman, author of Leading with Emotional Courage (Wiley 2018), describes just such a scenario, and how it reinforces the mistake (and defensiveness). When you confront an employee with a past-focused question, such as, “What were you thinking?” they become defensive, and in the retelling of the events, the mistake is embedded in the emotional center of the brain.

Instead, great leaders focus on the future. They ask the employee about what they will do differently in the future. Asking future focused questions has numerous benefits:

  • It allows the employee to acknowledge the mistake as well as the lesson learned.
  • It allows the leader to guide the employee to identify any other potential flaws in their pattern of thinking.
  • It builds trust: in the employee’s and leader’s competence.

Manage Your Response

While this sounds simple, we first need to learn how to manage our own emotional reactions when the employee makes a mistake. Bregman offers a few keys:

  1. When you experience an emotion, pause with curiosity. Take a breath.
  2. Ask yourself: “What is my desired outcome?” “What would I like my next action (communication) to achieve?” Be honest with yourself. Is it to discipline or punish? Correct? Guide? Teach?
  3. Determine the actions (verbal or otherwise) that will most likely help you achieve your desired outcome. Often, what you’ll find is a conversation about the future, not the past. Ask your employee what they plan to do in the future in similar scenarios.

Of course, these actions require a willingness to tolerate all feelings. Bregman calls this “emotional courage.” And with practice, you can strengthen yours.

Lead Your Organization through Meaningful Mistakes

Great leaders model how to make ethical, wise decisions for all their employees. Many have led the way in revising organizational codes of conduct, ethics training, diversity/equity/inclusivity (DEI) training, and communication practices.

And yet, mistakes can still happen. How organizations respond to errors can determine their success, or demise. We begin with attitude.

We know from research that people who are naturally resilient have an optimistic explanatory style: they explain adversity in optimistic terms to avoid the trap of feelings of helplessness. Resilient, persistent cultures interpret setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. They know that, “This too, shall pass.”

In contrast, a pessimistic explanatory culture interprets setbacks as permanent, universal, and immutable. They believe that, “It’s no use.”

Part of the problem is our human tendency to blame. We perceive and react to errors, mistakes, and failure inappropriately. We either avoid blame or assign it. Or, we overact with self-criticism.

The Blame Game

According to psychologist Saul Rosenzweig, we experience frustration and anger—often the triggers of the blame game—based on our personality categories:

  1. Extrapunitive: Prone to unfairly blame others
  2. Impunitive: Denies that failure has occurred or one’s own role in it
  3. Intropunitive: Judges self too harshly and imagines failures where none exist

These personalities influence a corporate culture. Extrapunitive responses are common in the business world—you don’t have to look far to see it. Shifting the blame from one entity to another (or individual) is common. To be sure, some mistakes are blameworthy. But to build organizational resilience and bounce back from a mistake, you want to use your energy in more productive ways.

  • Listen and communicate. Most of us forget to gather enough feedback and information before reacting, especially when it comes to bad news. Never assume you have all the information until you ask probing questions.
  • Reflect on both the situation and the We’re good at picking up patterns and making assumptions. Remember, however, that each situation is unique and has context.
  • Think before you act. You don’t have to respond immediately or impulsively. You can always make things worse by overreacting in a highly charged situation.
  • Search for a lesson. Look for nuance and context. Sometimes a colleague or a group is at fault, sometimes you are, and sometimes no one is to blame. Create and test hypotheses about why the failure occurred to prevent it from happening again.
  • Make amends. Acknowledge responsibility for wrong doing, and take action to redress that wrong.

Make Amends

In Moral Repair (Cambridge University Press 2012), Margaret Urban Walker describes making amends as taking reparative action, but only action that issues from an acceptance of responsibility for wrong doing, and that embodies the will to set right something for which amends are owed.

This is not unlike some of the steps in recovery programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    1. In other words, to my knowledge, this is who our organization has harmed, and we would like to do what we can to correct our mistake.
  2. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    1. In other words, we accept full responsibility for our mistakes, and we will do what we can to correct this mistake.
  3. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    1. In other words, we will continue to monitor our attitudes and actions, and when we are wrong, we will promptly admit it.

Making amends builds resilience, for individuals, and organizations. Leaders who can admit to their mistakes can make them meaningful. They can masterfully lead through mistakes.

In Health, Wealth and Happiness,


Dr. Maynard Brusman

Consulting Psychologist & EQ Executive Coach and Mindful Leadership Consultant
Trusted Leadership Advisor

Professional Certified Coach (PCC), International Coach Federation

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