If you’re somewhere in the management chain and not yet a member of either the Leadership Think Tank or Harvard Business Review groups on LinkedIn, you’re missing out on some very interesting conversations that get to the core of well-being in the workplace… or perhaps lack thereof in many American companies. One of the questions being debated on LinkedIn this week is as follows:
If your employee makes a mistake, do you accept responsibility?
Fascinated by the discussion thread, I scrolled through all of the comments and got a good sense for what people had to say about responsibility, accountability, and throwing subordinates under the bus. While I didn’t do a tally, it struck me that a rather large percentage of the comments had a strong authoritarian flavor, many with advice on the process and education needed to avoid mistakes in the future. I believe the predominantly negative vibe rather accurately represents prevailing attitudes, which stunt healthy cultural development and frankly, our national economy.
I haven’t been able to shake the negative sensation the comments left me feeling all afternoon, so please indulge me as I share the comment I posted to the discussion group.
Your Thoughts, Please
I’d like to know what the Positive Business DC community thinks of responsibility, accountability, and handling mistakes in the workplace. What percentage of companies allow it to be ‘okay’ to make mistakes? Does the size of the mistake and risk involved matter to how ‘okay’ mistakes are? Is it ever acceptable to shift blame because you weren’t the one who actually made the mistake? Please read… and then comment.
One “Right” Answer Syndrome
The tone of the comments [in the HBR group on LinkedIn] tells a great deal about corporate culture and, I believe, give a good indication as to why we struggle to build innovative businesses on a large scale. A few people have noted the benefit of learning from mistakes and having a learning culture. The majority seem to think mistakes are inherently bad and turn to process, protocol, training, etc. Why are we so afraid to make mistakes? The basic flaw in thinking begins early when we are taught to look for one right answer.
Leaders are responsible for performance. That means, when something happens, a leader accepts responsibility and addresses the issues head on, appropriately, and with the person who made the mistake. And, being responsible for performance, it means leaders also have an obligation to develop the people on their teams… which means that these people will make mistakes. Errors should be expected as a matter of course.
If you’re not helping people develop their talents, try new things, and grow, then you have failed as a leader.
Individual performance will not be what it could because you have left a lot of untapped potential on the table. As a result, organizational performance will also be less than it could be because individuals and teams will be artificially constrained by what they [already] know [and do]. You cannot innovate, disrupt markets, or even thrive in saturated markets without the pooled intelligence and interest of an engaged team that relies on complementary talents to move your business forward in a smart way.
What The Research Says…
The neuroscientific research shows that people develop intuition by going through repeated cycles of success and failure. Do something well? Dopamine flows and you feel great! Make a mistake? Uh oh. The flow of dopamine cuts of and you feel bad. Only through these experiences do we develop a ‘gut feeling’ that helps us successfully make decisions in environments where you have only partial information–which is always.
Another interesting tidbit: Although humans like to think they make ‘rational’ decisions, the research shows that 70% of the decisions we make actually come from the emotional brain. When we use the rational brain to override the emotional brain, many times we make the wrong decisions.
A Very Revealing Interview Question
When interviewing, I ask a number of behavioral questions. One of my favorites is, “Tell me about a time when you tried something and failed. What happened?” If the candidate says they never fail, the I know this person does not fit my business philosophy. If s/he tells a whopper of a story (and can follow up with a way s/he resolved it), then I usually give one or two of my own. It leads to great discussion and helps me assess fit like few other questions can.
Finger-pointing—Always A No-no
A final thought: finger-pointing is not acceptable from anyone. Not management. Not employees. Finger-pointing builds a counterproductive culture where trust cannot exist. And that poisons everyone.
Build Trusting Relationships
I have two rules of thumb that have served very well over the past 20 years. 1) You can tell me anything without negative repercussion as long as it is the truth as you know it (and you didn’t break any laws, etc.); 2) If you think you’re going to miss a deadline, tell me as soon as you know.
Keep it simple. Build trusting relationships. And always, always watch your employees’ backs.
Please take your turn to speak up and be heard. Comment below.