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, “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 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At its core, being wrong requires acceptance that our understanding may be limited, out-of-date, or simply fallible.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.”

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

  • Experience
  • Personality
  • Values
  • Strategy
  • 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:

  • Pessimistic model: errors are dangerous, humiliating, distasteful, and un-fun. 
  • 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

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, 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

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. 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:

  • Focuses on the other person(s) and how they have been affected by your mistake.
  • Takes responsibility. It acknowledges an error and remorse.
  • Makes amends. It addresses what can, is, and will be done to correct the mistake.
  • Builds trust. It communicates what you will do differently in the future.

Meaningful mistakes require reflection, without obsession. 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.

Peter Bregman, author of Leading with Emotional Courage (Wiley 2018), suggests that when you confront an employee with a past-focused question, such as, “What were you thinking?” they become defensive, and the mistake is reinforced. Instead, great leaders ask questions that focus on the future. Future focused questions have numerous benefits:

  • Allows the employee to acknowledge the mistake as well as the lesson learned.
  • Allows the leader to guide the employee to identify any other potential flaws in their pattern of thinking.
  • 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:

  • When you experience an emotion, pause with curiosity. Take a breath.
  • Ask yourself: “What is my desired outcome?” “What would I like my next action (communication) to achieve?” Be honest with yourself.
  • 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. 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.

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

  • Extrapunitive: Prone to unfairly blame others
  • Impunitive: Denies that failure has occurred or one’s own role in it
  • 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. 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. Never assume you have all the information until you ask probing questions.
  • Reflect on both the situation and the people. 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.
  • Search for a lesson. Look for nuance and context. 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. Translated loosely, for organizations it might sound like:

  • We searched for who and how our organization has harmed, and we would like to do what we can to correct our mistake.
  • We accept full responsibility for our mistakes, and we will do what we can to correct this mistake.
  • 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.

Develop Your Mental Game

As a leader, how is your mental game?
Consider today’s outstanding athletes, such as those who recently participated in the U.S. Open. It’s impressive to see these leaders excel in their field; they are really amazing! Not unlike today’s outstanding business leaders and managers, they overcome obstacles, deal with set-backs and persevere to the end.
After watching a game or two it’s easy to take their impressive skills for granted. After all, they make it look so easy. And then they make a clear mistake.
Such was the case for one such player: with a single swat, he unintentionally hit a ball at a line judge, and was disqualified.
How can such a well-trained, highly-skilled and disciplined leader make such a mistake?
He got caught in a momentary lapse of un-mindfulness, distracted and fueled by frustration. And it happens to the best of us. We lose our clarity and focus.
Clarity and Focus
Clarity is knowing exactly what you want to achieve as a leader: your vision. Focus is knowing and doing the actions required to get you there. Great leaders do the right thing, right now. How?
First, they develop a clear mental picture of their intention. Then, they make a conscious choice to commit to and pursue that intention. And last, but certainly not least, they develop strategies for protecting their intention against distracting feelings or emotions, like boredom and frustration.
Just like great athletes, great business leaders take purposeful action to preserve and strengthen their mental abilities. After all, leaders who work on their brain fitness are less prone to errors. They understand that clarity and focus require three key areas of brain function:

  • Cognition: Education and experience contribute to your cognitive abilities, so wise leaders engage in learning new skills which they practice to improve their processing speed (how quickly they can recall information, names and memories). This allows them to make wise and timely decisions and responses, and, it also inhibits actions that could sabotage their best efforts, like hitting a ball at a line judge.
  • Emotion Management: Learning how to self-regulate emotions, including stress and anger, is crucial for personal and professional success. You see, when an event or action is stored in our memory, the associated emotion is also stored. This unconscious emotional tagging process can influence our clarity, focus and future decision making process.
  • Executive Judgment: This operational part of the brain enables us to receive information, assess our feelings, identify and analyze pros and cons, formulate plans and discern outcomes.

Build Your Foundation
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a true brain enhancement pill that could increase our health, wellness and performance? While research reveals that nootropics benefit cognition, learning and mental clarity, they don’t actually improve intellect or IQ. If you’re not familiar with nootropics, they are a class of substances (natural or synthetic) comprised of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, antioxidants and other herbal ingredients. Nootropics can have some effect on our memory, thinking or other brain functions, but, more non-biased studies (non-brand or product related) must be conducted. In the meantime, we do know that diet, exercise and meditation are key to higher brain function.

  • Diet: in a perfect world, we’d get all the vitamins and minerals we need through a healthy diet of a wide-range of plants that fight inflammation. You see, science has linked many diseases, including those affecting our brain health­, with chronic inflammation. According to an article published by Harvard Health Publishing (November 2018) choosing the right anti-inflammatory foods reduces your risk of illness.
  • If you’re looking to improve your mental game, consider the Mediterranean diet: it’s high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish and healthier oils. And of course, avoid processed foods, or those high in sugar. Researchers are finding greater evidence linking poor brain health to sugar. So while it might give your brain an initial surge, it’s not the best tool. Instead, give yourself a boost with exercise.
  • Exercise: exercise increases activity in parts of the brain that have to do with executive function. Not only that, exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells. The key is to push yourself (with approval from your health care professional): reach your target heart rate for a period of 20-minutes, totaling a minimum of 150 minutes/week.
  • Why? Aerobic exercises increases blood flow to the brain, reduces stress and improves mood. And, if you are actually enjoying the activity, this only improves your outlook.
  • Meditation: the beneficial effects of meditation for brain fitness are the result of changes in underlying brain processes. Through MRI (fcMRI) scanning, researchers with the National Institutes of Health found that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a form of meditation, alters intrinsic connectivity networks (ICNs).
  • MBSR is an attention-training technique that focuses on present moment internal and external experience. It includes breath awareness, body awareness (scanning) and attention to the impermanence of sensory experience. After eight weeks of MBSR training and practice, researchers identified changes in the subject’s brains reflective of a more “consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience.”

Beware of Distractions
Distraction has become an ongoing challenge for many leaders and managers. And it’s not just our devices or technology, rather, it’s often our emotions, or our responses to our emotions.
According to Nir Eyal, an expert on technology and psychology published by Harvard Business Review, and author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. (BenBella Books, 2019) we need to recognize the difference between traction and distraction. Gaining traction requires purposeful action: channeling our energy and focus.
Energy is much more than effort. It is engagement in a meaningful activity, propelled by both internal and external resources. Purposeful action is self-driven behavior; it is self-generated and engaged to generate traction.
Focus is conscious, intentional and disciplined thought and behavior. You see, purposeful action requires discipline to resist distraction, overcome obstacles and persevere in the face of setbacks. Our focus and energy might fall into one of four categories:

    

The Frenzied: Are you highly energetic and enthusiastic about your work, yet distracted or overwhelmed by tasks? How do you feel about deadlines, demands and the tyranny of the urgent? The need for speed may trigger you to act without hesitation, but you could achieve more if you consciously concentrate your efforts on what really matters.
The Procrastinator: Are you feeling low energy and focus? Insecurities and fear of failure may cause you to work on minor details, rather than tasks that could make a real difference for your organization.
The Detached: Are you focused, but without energy? What is the cause? You may be passing on apathy or disdain to your co-workers, sending mixed signals.
The Purposeful: Are you highly focused and energetic? You signal calm, reflective, and able to get the job done, even in chaos.
Boost Your Mental Game
When the going gets tough, how do you develop your mental game?  Answer these questions to boost your energy and hone your focus:
Energy Boosters

  • Focus on one goal. Without judgment or self-censoring, ask yourself:
    1. What is the big picture?
    2. What data, research and strategies do I have and/or need for wise decisions about objectives and goals?
    3. Is my goal well defined?
    4. Where are the limits in my understanding?
    5. How does the goal align with my values and those of my organization?
    6. How would I benefit from a mentor?
  • Build confidence. Consider past personal goals, and ask yourself:
    1. What was my experience with achieving comparable goals? Is it repeatable?
    2. Who is my role model? Can they help me understand what it takes?
    3. Where can I go for feedback and evaluation?
    4. How can I experiment, rehearse or practice critical tasks toward my goal?
  • Practice positivity. Overcome negativity, and develop positive thoughts and feelings by asking yourself:
    1. What are my patterns of feelings and experiences?
    2. How are they related to my thoughts and behaviors about my goal?
    3. Where do I find healthy outlets and support? (hobbies, sports, friends)
    4. When do I experience fun or excitement?
    5. What about my work creates enthusiasm?
    6. Work aside, where do I draw strength? How do I gain balance?

Focus Boosters

  • Harness the power of visualization. Visualize your goal, or objective, and ask yourself:
    1. What does my objective look like? When I need to remember my objective, what simple image can I conjure?
    2. What are the small steps I need to take to reach my goal?
  • Commit to your goal. Make it personal, and ask yourself:
    1. Does this goal feel right for me?
    2. How much do I really want to achieve my goal?
    3. What positive feelings are attached to this goal?
    4. How does this goal align with my values and beliefs?

Boosting your mental game requires a clear mental picture of your goal or objective and a conscious choice to commit to and pursue your goal.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Because Better is Better

How does your organization approach diversity, equity, and inclusion?

While many leaders believe they have taken adequate steps to correct or avoid inequalities in the workplace with policies, promotion, and training, all too often we hear about employees who experience some form of exclusion or inequity, including lack of promotion, outright harassment, and even worse.

Being excluded at work is not fun. Even in times when most people are working remotely, being left out can intensify a sense of alienation, which impacts our happiness and performance. This is even more critical for small businesses: according to a 2019 survey, 52% of small businesses report labor quality as their biggest challenge.

Imagine, then, the impact when co-workers and leaders ignore an ongoing problem.

What if the exclusion(s) were due to your ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation? How do you address diversity, equity and inclusion problems in your organization?

Social psychologist and researcher Robert Livingston, author of The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, (Random House 2021) writes in the September-October 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review that the real challenge is not figuring out what to do, it’s our willingness. We’re able, but unwilling. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Trickle-Up Diversity

The concept that diversity will trickle up to the C-level suites is fundamentally flawed.

According to research conducted between September and November 2019 by Mercer, Caucasians fill 64% of entry level positions and 85% of top executive positions, demonstrating a promotion and equity gap. “The representation of people of color (both men and women) decreases incrementally as career levels rise.” Let’s Get Real About Equality (2020, p 22.)

Without equity and inclusion, diversity falls short. According to new research published by Columbia Business School, people need a sense of belonging. Given today’s challenges with an ongoing pandemic, and a polarizing political climate, is this even possible?

The biggest obstacle to hope and change is cynicism and apathy. Don’t let that happen in your organization. We can do better, and better is better.

We need to become aware of the problems, analyze the root-cause(s), practice empathy, and sometimes, make hard choices to the point of sacrifice. But in the long run, when we invest our time and effort in real strategies that work, the return on investment is worth it.

Increase Accountability and Transparency

We are making some progress when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.

As Harvard University psychologists Tessa E.S. Charlesworth and Mahzarin R. Banaji found in their research and published in What Works, “New data from nearly 6 million respondents shows that implicit (and explicit) attitudes/beliefs about minority groups can and do improve over the long-term (sexuality, race, skin tone, and gender roles).” They found that over a 10-year period, a widespread change occurred across most demographic groups.

What’s going on in your organization? Track your diversity and increase accountability and transparency with these steps:

  • Complete a SWOT analysis:
    • Collect data over time, including personnel transitions , discrimination complaints and outcomes, and employee surveys:
      • Create a template of questions to be answered anonymously; offer a range of answer choices, as well as an opportunity for a comment.
      • Ensure the survey reaches all employees and that they have adequate instructions and time to complete it.
      • Tabulate the results to establish your baseline.
      • Periodically, re-survey all employees with the same questions.
    • Analyze trends.
      • Compare your data over time, and compare it to other organizations.
      • Where are you seeing improvement in recruitment, hiring, promotion, pay, and retention?
      • Where do you need to improve?
  • Create goals. This is a critical step in the process: it lays the foundation for accountability and transparency.
    • Share your anonymous results with all employees.
    • Celebrate trends as they improve.
    • Establish SMART goals for areas needing improvement.
    • Educate all employees on how their attitudes and actions contribute to results, especially matters regarding inclusion.

Uncover Hidden Hiring Bias

While human bias can change over time, employee surveys often reveal slow progress, especially when it comes to promotion and equity. Here are a few suggestions that work in any organization, regardless of size:

  • Post the position in a broad range of forums, networks, or organizations, including those that work with the under-represented.
  • Don’t discriminate by asking for classification-specific applicants or referrals, rather, include a mission statement and/or diversity statement in your post.
  • Create a diverse interviewer panel, a consistent set of interview questions, and scoring criteria relevant to an accurate job description and essential qualifications.
  • Ask every applicant for their definition of diversity. As a follow-up, ask how they have promoted diversity, equity, and inclusion through their previous work experiences.
  • Document your recruiting, hiring, and promotion process. Retain notes from interviews or decisions on promotions.

If you haven’t already, identify a diversity officer or diversity task force to create hiring and promotion plans, and to review outcomes and disparities. Look to your managers, at all levels, as potential participants in the task force.

What You Need to Know about Hiring Technology

Hiring technology must be carefully designed in order to avoid pitfalls and achieve fair hiring: absent of disparate treatment and disparate impact. In assessing technology, look for:

  • Data that demonstrates fairness throughout all demographics
  • Candidate assessments and selections that are relevant to job requirements
  • Disparate impact testing prior to deployment
  • Ability to conceal demographic indicators from decision makers to enable objective human assessment
  • Tools that mitigate the risk of human bias in decision making
  • Tools that audit for disparate impact

Two important notes: beware of small samplings or group sizes in data sets, and review algorithms. This is critical to demonstrate fairness, objectivity, and relevancy, especially in terms of predicting outcomes and success.

Share your employment composition data and processes with all stakeholders. This includes the criteria for hiring, promotion, salary, bias/discrimination complaints, and how it compares to other businesses in your segment and geography.

Create Safe Reporting Alternatives

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, over 39,000 retaliation-based discrimination charges were filed in 2019. Unfortunately, many of our complaint systems are not working.

In What Works, researchers Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev report that formal grievance procedures actually slow progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion of minority men and women in management. Instead, organizations and leaders can offer alternatives, including:

  • A neutral party to receive confidential complaints, such as an ombudsperson. Their role is to listen and provide guidance to resolve issues. Developing a pool of well trained and skilled ombudpersons can improve potential conflict of interest risk.
  • An external, third party mediator. Their role is to listen and advise. Mediators are commonly available through an employee assistance program.
  • A dispute resolution department, either internal or external. Their role is to represent—or arbitrate for—both parties in mediation on a variety of issues. However, when there is a power difference between parties, or when termination is the remedy, complaints may go unresolved in a satisfactory manner.
  • A transformative dispute resolution model designed to change the workplace. At its core, this model is designed to change the workplace by improving self-awareness, skills, and accountability through training, and sometimes, in policies and processes.

Of course, equity and inclusion ultimately depend on leadership attitudes. When leaders perceive complaints as threats, they miss the opportunity to gain valuable insights. By balancing speed with quality in finding solutions, they gain insights. 

Balance Speed with Proven Strategies

Leaders can create a culture of equality and inclusivity with best practices and proven methods that can be quickly and successfully implemented with little or no customization and at low cost.

  • Diagnostics: Assess the local context. Your diagnostics should include research on your own business, as well as the local, or relevant, geographic demographics and statistics, including pay scales. This is important for equality comparisons and goal setting.
  • Engage influencers:  Invite willing and able actors, especially managers, in the design process. Ask your managers to conduct reality checks: how does this impact current systems, processes, and ways of doing business?
  • Create your model of change: Take local context into account and identify a target of change. Understand the experiences of specific groups of underrepresented minorities, that one-size-does-not-fit-all, and that minority voices are not heard until they reach 30% critical mass.
  • Build momentum: Begin with the most engaged departments, teams, or individuals. Incorporate bystander training to equip and empower everyone. Celebrate accomplishments as progress is made.

The Key to Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are not the same. While companies can mandate diversity, leaders have to cultivate inclusion. This begins with a genuine interest in, and for, other individuals.

People instinctively yearn for inclusion; belonging is a part of our hierarchical needs to achieve our potential and peak performance. Our sense of belonging is relative to our sense of security and safety. Leaders who support diversity, equality, and inclusion provide a safe and equitable work environment.

Great leaders get to know individuals. They learn about their unique strengths, experiences, and needs. The best leaders demonstrate their understanding and care by recognizing individuals with respect.

Managers play a key role in this. As Michael Slepian writes for Harvard Business Review (August 2020), “Managers should not only signal that a social identity is valued, but also that the individual is valued, as a person, not just on the basis of the social group they represent.”

Most individuals don’t want to be asked to speak on behalf of their social group; they don’t want to be singled out in this manner. Instead, get to know the individual, and ask them to share their thoughts based on their strengths and unique experiences. People want their social group to be included and their individual self to belong.