Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Taking Responsibility

It’s inevitable, all leaders make bad decisions sometimes.  It doesn’t matter how much information you gather and what your advisers may suggest you do, you call the shot and its a bad one.  My biggest issue is not the bad decision, it’s the leader that doesn’t own up to his/her mistake.  They somehow try to justify or worse substantiate their bad decision.  When they do, they lose the respect of the masses. There is an old saying “Two wrongs don’t make a Right”.

Employees value a leader who can stick to his guns, yes. But self-justification and blind faith in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary can quickly push those leaders over the line into arrogance. As much as leaders worry about appearing strong and resolute, it is much more likely that they will err in the direction of looking delusional in their consistency. If you’ve crossed this line then you are at serious risk of losing all credibility and there is only one way to get it back: Admit you were wrong.

While admitting our mistakes may sound simple, our psychological wiring works against us. According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, the cognitive dissonance theory states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes abnormal behavior.  In other words, our minds actively seek out confirming evidence to support our decisions and self-image. For most people, this confirmation bias is so strong that we often end up convincing ourselves of things that sound outrageous to more objective observers. What this means from a practical standpoint is that since you were the one who made the decision, your employees never reach your level of commitment. Therefore if the decision was wrong, your employees will almost always see the folly of your ways before you will. If the gap between when they see it and when you see it is too long, you will lose their faith and confidence.

Since confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are hard-wired into our minds, there isn’t much you can do about it except be aware that it exists. If you are aware of it, you can at least guard against it, invite alternative ideas and open yourself to accepting change when your current direction isn’t working. Have you been blinded by your resolve? Is it time to change? If you’re ready to admit you’ve made a mistake, then do it without excuses. It is so rare for leaders to accept responsibility without pointing to extenuating circumstances that when they do, it is greeted with amazement and praise. While consistency is an important leadership trait, the ability to admit mistakes and accept full responsibility far outweighs the appearance of resolve.

Unfortunately, deflecting attention away from our mistakes is so ingrained into our culture — both American culture and corporate culture — that getting people to fess up to their mistakes is no easy task. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, who explore cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in-depth in their book Mistakes Were Made but Not by Me, explain that because American culture rewards results without recognizing effort, we have been conditioned to view mistakes as purely negative. A mistake equals a failure to produce results and therefore mistakes cannot be tolerated. By ignoring the trial and error process required to achieve success, we encourage people to stay on the wrong course long after that course has shown itself to be flawed. As a leader, changing your culture to one that accepts mistakes will not only make it easier for people to admit their errors and change course when necessary, but it will foster a more open atmosphere of candor and feedback.

Whether from fear or from the confirmation bias, most managers are terrified that admitting their mistakes will show they are weak or stupid; because of this fear they will choose resolve even in the face of obvious failure. Ironically, this type of blind devotion to flawed strategies will make them look far worse than simply accepting responsibility, speaking with candor and showing the strength to change. The risk of looking foolish is miniscule compared to the goodwill earned from standing up and doing the right thing. Nobody likes a quitter, but at some point leaders need to know when to throw in the towel and stop throwing good money after bad.