Have you made a mistake at work?
I’ve asked that question to numerous groups of leaders. Every hand in the room goes up.
We all make mistakes. Yet why are they hard to admit?
Because admitting them causes us pain. Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance: the stress caused from holding two ore more contradictory beliefs or values.
Here’s an example: I think of myself as a smart, considerate and conscientious professional. Let’s say I promised to follow up with someone after a meeting. And I don’t follow up. The story I’m likely to tell myself (and others) is “I got really busy”. That’s easier than saying: I goofed. Admitting the mistake (I didn’t do what I said I’d do) flies in the face of my belief that I’m conscientious. If I admit my mistake, than am I really the person that I want to think I am?
Cognitive dissonance isn’t the only reason people don’t admit mistakes. Some people feel doing so is a career limiting move. One company I recently worked with surveyed their employees and 38% of their employees are afraid to admit their mistakes for fear of consequences.
Trying to live in a world pretending there are never mistakes is like trying to live in an alternate reality. Ultimately, it’s not sustainable. It’s also bad for business. Here are 5 reasons why leaders should promote a culture of mistake admission:
Build Trust. The foundation for trust (and teamwork) is being vulnerable. When you admit mistakes, you model bringing your whole real self to work. As a leader, your team will only be as vulnerable as you are willing to be. This will help you build stronger relationships.
Greater Understanding. It’s a lot easier to see things clearly when there aren’t smokescreens and mirrors in your line of sight. Admitting mistakes helps you and your team see things as they really are. This deepens and enriches your perspective.
Better Decisions. Greater understanding gives you the insight to make better choices. This has a multiplier effect: Not only does the quality of your decisions improve (yielding better results), but the speed and ease of making decisions improves as well (creating a better process).
Easier Clean Up. Have you noticed that if you clean a baking dish immediately after you use it, the baked on mess comes off much easier? Mistakes are the same way. The longer that you deny, repress, or hide the mistake, the more impact it will have in the long term.
Growth Mindset. Mistakes happen. The accompanying shame, anger, guilt and frustration are optional. When it comes to mistakes, we can get dramatic, or we can choose to learn something. There’s a famous story about an IBM salesperson in the 1940s losing a million dollar contract, and bringing his letter of resignation to the company’s CEO, Thomas Watson, Sr. Watson refused his letter, and said, Why would I accept this when I have just invested one million dollars in your education?
Like it or not, mistakes are going to happen. How you deal with them is what makes the difference. Why not choose to be intentional–and use them as a tool in your leadership tool box? If you can deal well with mistakes–both your own and others–you can bring your leadership to a whole new level.
What have you learned from your mistakes? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.