Two reports came across my desk recently that got me thinking about business leaders and when they should admit that they’re on the wrong track, or that they’ve goofed.
But this study from Boston-based Forum Corp., Driving Business Results by Building Trust, puts more stock in something it says leaders don’t do as well as they think they do: admit when they’re wrong. It finds most leaders (about 75 percent) indicated that they acknowledge their own mistakes often or always, yet only 16 percent of employees indicated leaders acknowledged their own mistakes often or always.
Even more telling, from the 948 respondents (711 leaders and 237 employees), 87 percent of leaders said they often or always apologize, while only 19 percent of employees indicated their leaders did so.
“When we asked leaders why they were reluctant to apologize,” Forum’s report says, “the most frequent comments related to their image or reputation: They didn’t want to look weak or incompetent.” Which kind of gets to my second paragraph above.
Forum says it’s all about trust:
Since mistakes are a natural part of business, as many pointed out, leaders have many opportunities to incorporate “moments of trust” into their working day: where they use mistakes to build trust and foster learning. Trying to bury mistakes or punish others for making them has a damaging effect on trust.”
Not speaking up about something gone wrong can also have a devastating effect on projects, according to this post by Gretchen Gavett: “The Hidden Indicators of a Failing Project,” on the Harvard Business Review‘s HBR Blog Network. Gavett quotes Matthew McWha, the practice manager at Arlington, Va.-based CEB, as saying, “There’s a lot of perceived personal risk in saying, ‘I’m managing a failing project.’ Or people actually think they can turn it around, so they don’t bring it up. They think they’re better off trying like the dickens to recover it in the meantime.”
According to McWha, the culture of project management often discourages the raising of important red flags that could turn problem projects around. On the contrary, the No. 1 driver of successful projects, he says, is a great manager who isn’t just “good at conducting the trains [but] someone able to manage stakeholders and risk, and be comfortable adapting and changing course if necessary” … i.e., if and when mistakes are made or a failed course comes to light.
Gavett also cites research from Bent Flyvbjerg, author of Megaprojects: An Anatomy of Ambition, and his Oxford colleague Alexander Budzier in her argument that too many projects are measured by time and budget instead of business outcomes. She writes:
In the end, even the drivers of even successful projects aren’t actually technical, Flyvbjerg and Budzier explained: They largely involve the project’s environment, whether there’s organizational resistance, and how risk is being managed. All of these internal indicators, combined with our own human perceptions about what we can and can’t do or say, play into whether projects are headed for a head-in-your-hands kind of moment.”
I’m fascinated enough by this power of admitting errors or wrong directions in leaders — a power we haven’t written a whole lot about and it seems is missing in most workplaces — that I plan to take it up in an upcoming news analysis on our HREOnline™ website. Stay tuned.