Human Leadership: Admitting Faults

I was sitting in a meeting one time, and in that meeting we were discussing an issue that had come up with one of our employees. The employee had screwed up. No one was really arguing that point. What was being discussed was whose fault the screw up was. (Why, oh why, do we spend so much time in discussions like that?) As the discussion dragged on, Training and Development became the easiest target. Well, duh–anytime someone messes up, it’s obviously because they weren’t trained well, right? (I hope you’re picking up the sarcasm, ’cause I’m laying it on pretty thick.)

So I started asking some questions. How long has the employee been here? Two years. How many times have they messed this particular thing up? None that we’re aware of. Did the employee fix the mistake? Yes, after she realized it. Had the employee’s manager worked with the employee on this facet of their job at all since the employee emerged from the new hire training that would have covered that particular thing almost two years ago? No, not that I know of.

I just sat there looking at the executive that had been providing me the answers, waiting for it to click. In my own pride, I really wanted to hear her say that she was wrong, because I sure as heck knew she was. (You see the irony here, right? I had the same arrogant attitude; it was just manifesting itself differently.) So I waited. And nothing. This executive kept going on about the training, and I kept thinking to myself, and then saying out loud, How can you not see that this isn’t a training thing? How can you not see that this is the predictable result of one of your managers being completely hands-off with an employee?

It was an exercise in futility. I mean humility. Or maybe it was both.

Leadership has to be this very human thing. People use all sorts of adjectives to describe how leaders should be: authentic, real, vulnerable, etc. The gist is that we need leaders who are human. Flawed. Imperfect. Humble. One big piece of this lies in admitting faults.

Leaders have to admit faults. Why is it so hard to do this? It could be a pride thing, sure; but it could also be that it’s simply hard, as a human being, to admit you’re wrong. No one that I know of especially enjoys doing that. I know it’s not at the top of my list of things to do. I’m sure most of you are the same. There’s very little worse than that moment in an argument or discussion when you realize that you are, in fact, wrong. Then you just hope the other person or people don’t realize it in time to capitalize on it. (Don’t lie…you know you do it too…)

But why not let your team know that you know you’re wrong from time to time? Do you really want them to think that you think you’re always right? Do you really want them to be under the impression that you think you’re the smartest person in whatever room you happen to be in? Please, please, please, don’t do that.

You need to admit your faults. Not only does it help you become more appropriately human and “real,” it also inspires trust and confidence. When your team knows that you know you’re not perfect, and when they see that you have the humility to admit it, it becomes easier for people to work with and for you. You can roll up your collective sleeves and work together, as humans. Your team can see that you care more about the team and the organization than you do about being right all the time.

So embrace being a flawed human being, admit you’re wrong, and let your team see you do it.

20 comments

  1. Toni McMahon says:

    It’s important to keep in mind that we all go to work in the morning with the best intentions. We want to do a good job. If that is not the case; you have a bigger issue at hand. Mistakes are made by competent people everyday. So, next time you find yourself in meeting that has a finger pointing agenda, be the first to speak. Simply say, “It’s my fault, let us move on to what matters.” What separates you and your company from others is how you handle a mistake. Your company culture and your personal integrity is determined in HOW you deal with mistakes and problems.

    So, “It’s my fault, may we move on please”.

  2. Hi Matt
    First time here. Great post. My favorite line:
    Leadership has to be this very human thing.

    Let’s do bumper stickers.

    The fear of appearing wrong that keeps leaders and employees frozen is toxic to workplace cultures and relationships.

    Admit you’re wrong – and let your team see you do it. Stellar advice.

  3. Mark Arnold says:

    Matt,

    If you are in a leadership position you WILL make mistakes. Trust me, I’ve made dozens myself. Making a mistake is usually not the problem. Rather, how you as a leader respond to those mistakes is. Also keep in mind that as a leader, you are always being watched and always on stage. Your employees are watching how you deal with mistakes–both theirs and yours.

    Mark

  4. gen says:

    Training always gets the blame in “employee did wrong” situations-it’s an easy out, rather than dealing with the people you supervise. I’ve been in too many meetings where the first order of business is to assess blame. It’s amazing how many things are driven by the culture of the company–the culture driven by the man/woman in charge.

  5. [...] talked about being real and human before here, and about vulnerability-based trust here, if you’re interested. But what are some of the [...]

  6. Celine Sika says:

    Great post Matt.

    Mistakes are human. No one is perfect. We make mistakes all the time and we will make mistakes. We can’t avoid it. Now, HOW do you HANDLE them? What is your ATTITUDE when you make them? i think admitting you are wrong to your children friends, partner, colleagues, employees is absolutely human and it makes you approachable. It helps others to see that they are not monsters when they make mistakes.

  7. [...] #2: He’s very open about his weaknesses and weirdness. He’s open and vulnerable with his teams in ways I wish I was, and his teams are better off for it. He’s able to build [...]

  8. [...] of perspectives, and even from a leadership perspective. I talk a lot about the necessity of leaders being open and vulnerable, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I often ramble about the fact that leaders and their [...]

  9. [...] and is certainly applicable to our leadership within organizations. I’ve argued before that leaders need to be OK with having faults, and bold enough to be open about those faults. Vulnerability is foundational to building trust, [...]

  10. [...] #2: He’s very open about his weaknesses and weirdness. He’s open and vulnerable with his teams in ways I wish I was, and his teams are better off for it. He’s able to build [...]

  11. [...] all sentient beings.  In other words, leaders who are ego-maniacs need not apply. This sort of human leadership is critical, as it is almost antithetical to much of what passes as leadership within the corporate [...]

  12. [...] clumps of humans, and since that’s the case, we need to embrace the fact that we’re all flawed, unique, weird-in-our-own-way people. So knowing that, why not roll with it more? Heck–why [...]

  13. [...] You’re not perfect. You know it. Your team knows it. So why go to such great lengths to hide it? Some part of our brain tells us that admitting we’re wrong will cause people to lose respect for us, when in reality the opposite usually occurs. It builds trust. It shows humility, maturity, self-awareness, vulnerability, and humanness. [...]

  14. [...] need ordinary folks who will step up and do the hard things. Do hard things like admitting mistakes, being vulnerable, forgiving past mistakes, and building trust. Do hard things like complaining a [...]

  15. [...] families, homeschooling groups, etc, don’t need perfect leaders. They need real, human, vulnerable ones. They need leaders who have faults and talk openly about them. Faults, after all, are part of [...]

  16. […] Human Leadership: Admitting Faults by Matt Monge. Key quote: “Leaders have to admit faults. Why is it so hard to do this? It could be a pride thing, sure; but it could also be that it’s simply hard, as a human being, to admit you’re wrong. No one that I know of especially enjoys doing that. I know it’s not at the top of my list of things to do. I’m sure most of you are the same.” […]

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