When you’re wrong, do the right thing

CIO Scott Lowe says that when a leader confesses to making a mistake, it doesn't harm his or her reputation. On the contrary, it might make staff members trust you more.

I've worked with people in the past who were, in their minds, never wrong. Every mistake they made suddenly had some grand purpose; every misstep by one of their staffers was a "learning experience" from which great wisdom would be derived. While there are certainly instances in which a lemons-to-lemonade case can be made when a situation goes belly up, one action that can make a more powerful statement is owning up to being wrong every so often and, if necessary, apologizing.

It's something I probably shouldn't admit in such a public way, but I'm far from perfect. I'm not a perfect human and not a perfect leader. Every so often I blow it -- I might get too short with a staff member on a day that's particularly stressful or I might make a decision in a staff meeting that, well, looking back was just dumb.

In either of these cases and in many just like it, I could play the confidence card; that is, I could simply excuse away the blunder in a way that makes it seem like I had a grand plan all along. In fact, in the short term, going down that road might even engender some level of confidence in some people. After all, if everything I do is so well planned, then I must have a lot of answers, right? However, after a while, this strategy begins to get pretty transparent, and I'd argue that people, regardless of how they originally viewed the tactic, would begin to realize that they're just working for someone who can't stand not being perfect. Worse, over time, I can see situations in which staff, as a result of a manager's inability to admit he or she is human, actively start to distrust the person.

For all the leaders out there, I think there are better answers and solutions depending on the situation:

  • If you got short with someone, particularly in front of others, and you were wrong, fess up, apologize in a way that makes sense, and move on. I'll admit that I've done this -- not often! -- and I've patched it up with this process. I've been told that this was a very appreciated step and that it reinforced a good working relationship.
  • If you make a mistake, admit it. No one wants to work with a know-it-all. If you blow it -- you get a factual issue incorrect or argue a point that you later find is wrong -- admit it. Your staff will appreciate your candor and willingness to admit, again, that you're human.

Of course, there is a flip side to this. If you find yourself constantly blowing up at your staff, there are serious issues somewhere that need to be addressed. My advice here is simply for the occasional bad day.  Likewise, if you find yourself constantly admitting fault to making a mistake, look deep inside to make sure that you're in the right job and have the right knowledge.

There are some out there who will read this and have a negative reaction:

  • "You should always control your emotion, so this advice shouldn't even be necessary." We're all human and spend a third of our lives in the office. Personally, I can't simply turn everything off all the time. Sure I can control things, but I do have bad days, like most people. Unless this is a regular occurrence, how you handle the aftermath is a defining characteristic.
  • "You'll look weak if you apologize." Nah. I actually see it the other way around. I hate having to apologize for screwing up. It means I screwed up! Do the right thing. Of course, if this, too, becomes a part of your daily process and you can't get through a day without finding a need to fess up and apologize for something, you probably are weak.

For me, it boils down to this: My CIO job is twofold:

  • Lead the IT department to ensure that we're all meeting the needs of the organization. Sometimes, this means pushing pretty hard, taking disciplinary action, and doing other managerial stuff.
  • Ensure that roadblocks and other hurdles are out of the way so that my staff can operate at maximum effectiveness.

I tend to treat my staff as a group of humans that deserves respect. If they screwed up or got angry with me and were wrong, I'd expect them to do the right thing, so they have every right to expect it in return.