A strong leader admits mistakes

By Tom Borg

Admitting when you are wrong is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength that will earn you respect from your employees.

One of the best ways for a CEO, president, business owner or leader to earn employee mistrust is to continually make any of the following three blunders:

  • not admitting mistakes
  • not apologizing after offending someone
  • not answering an employee’s request for clarification or more information

I can’t tell you how often I have personally observed people in leadership positions making these mistakes. They may think they’re protecting themselves, but all they’re doing is digging a deeper ditch, one that’s all the more difficult to crawl out of. They erode the trust people have in them.

Let’s take a look at each one of these blunders and see what a leader can do to recover from them, so trust can be rebuilt — and to keep from making them in the future.

Blunder #1: Not admitting mistakes. Many times, the person making a mistake doesn’t realize it. Consider a Major League Baseball umpire who misses a call. Although he may not know he missed it, the 30,000 fans in the stadium do, not to mention the millions of others watching on TV. When the bad call is finally confirmed on the huge scoreboard, it’s as clear as day for everyone to see.

Fortunately, MLB now allows league officials to review instant replays to check the accuracy of questioned calls. What about your company or organization? Do you have a system for reversing bad choices or mistakes you or your leadership team have committed? If you don’t, you may want to institute such a system. When you make a mistake and don’t admit it, and don’t take steps to correct it, you’re just building a case for mistrust.

When someone we know makes a blatant error but refuses to acknowledge it, we start to mistrust that person. We think, “If they can’t speak the truth in this situation, how can they be trusted to speak the truth in other, similar situations?”

The solution is a simple one. As Dale Carnegie once said, “If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.” You can’t go wrong following his recommendation. And let’s not gloss over the “quickly” part, that we should not only admit our mistake, but do it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the less it means when you finally acknowledge it.

Blunder #2: Not apologizing for offending someone. In their article in Forbes magazine entitled, “Creative Leadership Humility and Being Wrong,” authors Doug Guthrie and Sudhir Venkatesh write about the positive power in admitting and apologizing for one’s mistakes. “We are frequently taught that leaders, especially aspiring leaders, should hide weaknesses and mistakes. This view is flawed.” Guthrie and Venkatesh agree that it is not only good to admit you are wrong when you are, but it can also be a powerful tool for leaders, actually increasing their legitimacy. This practice can help build a culture that increases solidarity, innovation, openness to change and many other positive features of organizational life.

Some time ago, I observed a retail department head who had the tendency to be blunt, insensitive and unresponsive when dealing with employee requests.

On one occasion, he stepped over the line by not responding to an employee’s request for help in dealing with a particular customer. It was an obvious blunder, and the department head should have known it and admitted it. Instead, his attitude was, “I’m too busy and important to deal with customers.”

To make matters worse, everyone he worked with knew he’d blown it. Once the blunder was brought to his attention, do you think this supervisor apologized for his mistake? Not a chance. As a result, his entire team silently slashed a few more points off his leadership score.

What should he have done? First, he should have admitted to himself, then to others, that he’d made a mistake. He would have had to recognize that it was going to take courage and a good deal of humility to apologize to the team member involved. Then, the next time he made a mistake, and every time thereafter, he’d need to be prompt in acknowledging it and apologizing for it. If he was consistent about doing that, after a while, word would get around and help rebuild trust in him as a leader with integrity.

Blunder #3: Not answering an employee’s request for clarification or more information. Sometimes leaders mistake a request for more information or clarification of a message as a sign of weakness in the person requesting the information, especially when it’s about something that involves accountability. They think that the person is only asking the question out of a lack of courage to take action. Sometimes that might be the case, but ultimately, whose responsibility is it to make sure that a subordinate has the training and confidence to make decisions and take necessary actions? That person’s superior, that’s who.

When a leader doesn’t communicate promptly and consistently, it builds distrust. Let’s take a look at why this happens. First, the person requesting information usually does so for a good reason. This person needs to make a decision and believes the leader has the necessary information to help with that decision. If the leader withholds that information, it causes people to ask “Why?”

Some leaders will use the “I’m too busy” excuse. When business owners, CEOs or presidents tell me they don’t have enough time to answer requests for information, I respond, “You don’t have enough time not to answer.”

Think about it — a delayed or incorrect decision by one of your employees can cost your company time, money, the reworking of an order, hurt feelings and, worst of all, lost clients. If you don’t think you have enough time to answer employee requests, I recommend you reconsider.

Sometimes a leader doesn’t know the answer. What then? “I don’t know,” is not an acceptable answer. A better answer includes any of the following responses:

  • “I don’t have enough information right now to answer your question.” — Jeanne Sullivan, founding partner of Starvest Partners
  • “Good question. I’ll find out and get back to you within 24 hours.” — Dr. Dave Miles, Dr. Dave Leadership Corp.
  • “Based on what we know today, my thoughts are … ” — Selena Rezvani, leadership author, speaker and consultant

In summary, to stop making trust-building blunders, and to build your team’s belief in you, I strongly recommend doing the following:

  • When you make a mistake, admit it as soon as possible.
  • When you offend someone, sincerely apologize — the sooner, the better.
  • Answer employee requests for clarification or information as soon as possible.

When you are able to employ these three tools, you’ll build confidence in you and bolster your reputation as a trustworthy human being who isn’t afraid to be real.

Tom Borg is a team performance and customer experience expert who works with green industry organizations and their leadership teams to help them connect, communicate and work together better without all the drama through his consulting, training, coaching, leadership instruments and job benchmarking tools. To ask him a question, please call 734.404.5909, email tom@tomborg.com or visit his website at www.tomborgconsulting.com.