Owning Mistakes Allows New Possibilities
By Shayne Hughes, CEO, Learning as Leadership
“You don’t think I’m embarrassed having my wings clipped?!” Bill’s voice cracked as he spoke to the executive team. “Coming in here every day, knowing what I did?”
The team fell silent as the gruff second-in-command pulled his glasses off and wiped his eyes. The CEO, who had just pushed Bill to discuss with the team his transgression that had angered their largest client, watched intently.
Bill had relished his own take-no-prisoners persona — until he went too far and the client finally declared it could ‘take-no-more’ and threatened to pull all their business. As the team scrambled to manage the crisis, hallway recriminations flew furiously. It even spilled into a board meeting.
Bill had met with each member of the management team individually, and assured the CEO that tensions were resolved. His boss wasn’t so confident. “You’re sure you have nothing to say to the entire team?”
Transparency Creates Transformation
Why go over it again? What good could it possibly do to revisit an embarrassing mistake in front of everyone?
Humiliation was not the CEO’s goal. He sensed intuitively that the wound had not been cleaned. The executive team was still venting, ‘making bad’, and insisting that Bill be fired — all behind his back. In the meeting with the executive team, as Bill’s vague words — half acknowledgment, half justification — became a transparent, emotional admission of his responsibility, the atmosphere shifted palpably. The team finally sensed Bill meant business when he said it wouldn’t happen again. Earnest words of support were expressed for the first time since the crisis began.
Transformation is nothing if it’s not counterintuitive. The very thing Bill wanted — to put the uncomfortable situation behind him — was perpetuating how upset everyone was with him. They couldn’t stop judging his mistake because they weren’t sure he really owned it. Bill, however, like so many of us, kept believing that in avoiding a public conversation, he could avoid their judgment. His lack of transparency only fueled their aggravation.
When Bill finally acknowledged his mistake in an unguarded way, he felt acutely vulnerable — and yet it was in this moment of honesty that his teammates shifted. They saw him again as a fallible, well-intentioned human being with lessons to learn. Just like themselves.
In his tears, they sensed that he cared. That he wasn’t justifying the situation to them or to himself. They saw an opportunity for the company to leverage his many strengths without the consequences of his dysfunctions.
Avoidance perpetuates; transparency transforms.
What is your experience with owning mistakes and creating a new starting point? I’d love to hear your setbacks and your breakthroughs.
I really wish this would happen in my workplace, there is one guy who seems to always be able to skate away clean and dump disasters in the lap of others without ever admitting his own culpability.
The greatest leverage you have is in your own behavior. How each one of us behaves influences and creates the context or culture around us. If you follow his lead, you’ll contribute to a context of blame and shirking responsibility. If you lead by more proactively owning your own responsibility in situations, and constructively receiving/acknowledging it when others do so, you have a chance of pushing your team culture towards one of co-responsibility.
Don’t let him distract you from the leader you want to be.