When I'm mentoring executives who are leading major transformations, I'm often asked ‘If I make a mistake, should I acknowledge it?’
It's a really tricky one! So much depends on the circumstances and the organisational environment. However, most of the time, my answer goes something like this.
As a leader you are accountable for your actions, the actions of your team and the ensuing consequences. Therefore if a mistake has consequences that threaten the desired outcome, then it’s better to acknowledge it, take corrective action, and move on.
Note that I’m not saying you should publicly ‘fall on your sword’ and send a self-flagellating letter-to-the-masses saying how sorry you are that you ‘stuffed-up’. You are still the leader and your credibility is paramount. This means remaining confident (not arrogant) and being transparent about what’s happened and why.
Major strategic change is dominated by uncertainty and ambiguity and in this kind of environment, mistakes are inevitable. Unfortunately, this fact doesn't make us feel any better when we make them. Doing the following will help you minimise, acknowledge and recover when (not if) you 'get it wrong'.
Base your decisions and actions on sound rationale in the first place
Use objective judgement, the available data and take into account specific circumstances. Recognise the assumptions you’re making and check whether they have a solid foundation. If it’s a guess (and sometimes it will be), understand why it’s a guess and make it as ‘educated’ as possible.
Identify what’s changed and understand why a previously good idea has become an issue
Intuition has its place in decision-making but when you make a mistake, saying ‘it just felt like the right thing to do at the time’ is rarely an acceptable explanation. Instead, ask yourself ‘what’s changed since the original decision which now means that it was a mistake?’ Were the assumptions wrong? Has new information become available?
Use a framework to help you explain what's happened to others
A framework will help keep your message clear and reduce 'woffle' and confusion. When engaging others, use the following to explain what’s happened and move the focus toward taking positive action. Be authentic, transparent and outcome-oriented.
Situation – what’s happened?
Complication – why is this a problem?
Implication – what does it mean?
Plan – what are we planning to do about it?
Appreciation – Acknowledge the human impacts of the mistake.
Action – What do we need to do right now?
As I said in the beginning, making mistakes hurts and there is no easy answer. While avoiding or ignoring them may seem like an attractive short-term 'fix', their effects tend to increase over time. This means that what would have been a small 'dint' in your ego (had you addressed it in the beginning), can quickly grow into a career-destroying disaster.
It would be great to hear from you. Do you think you should admit it when you make a mistake? Are there times when you should never admit a mistake?