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Why Everyone Benefits When Leaders Admit What They Don’t Know


TL;DR

  • Being a leader can be isolating. When stakes are high and we don’t know the answer, many leaders double down on an uninformed perspective in an attempt to prove proficiency.

  • Whether intentional or not, we lead by example. If we isolate ourselves or defend unexplored decisions during times of uncertainty, our employees will do the same.

  • Failure to disclose uncertainty or mistakes can lead to potentially dangerous or costly outcomes.

  • Setting a closed, or fixed leadership tone reduces creativity, innovation, and a positive work culture.

  • Reducing perfectionistic standards invites teams to contribute to shared problem solving, which leads to better ideas, while at the same time increasing morale.

  • When leaders admit to mistakes, it encourages employees to come forward when (not if) they make a mistake, which allows individuals and organizations to learn, grow, and improve.


Background: About Knowing What You Don’t Know


I recently listened to a Coaching for Leaders podcast episode on “how to know what you don’t know.” In it, guest Art Markman, PhD outlines the concepts of metacognition, “the ability to analyze one’s own thoughts or performance.”



While the episode focused on strategies to increase knowledge, it also got me thinking more deeply about the pre-condition behind the issue: that many leaders are unwilling to admit to what they don’t know.


I’m sure we’ve all seen this, but are we thinking carefully enough about what it does to an organization’s culture?



Leadership, Not Training, Sets the Tone


Interested in the literature on mistakes, I did a quick google search on “the danger and cost of not admitting to mistakes at work.” The results were mostly instructive articles about why managers and leaders should encourage their employees to admit to mistakes.


I’m sure if I dug deeper with the right search terms, leadership accountability would surface, but I found it interesting that my initial search largely assumed the source was at the individual contributor level and viewed it as a problem to be solved through training.


While working with teams to enable error reporting channels is important, thinking of it solely through a “training” lens neglects the reality that if the issue is a cultural feature, no amount of training will change institutional behavior.


The training-only focus neglects the importance and impact of leadership by example.


When leaders fail to admit to what they don’t know, they set a tone of competition and individualistic behavior, rather than collaboration and openness to a diversity of ideas. Over time, this could devolve into a culture that values perfection, risk aversion, and politics over growth, innovation, increased relevance, and shared success.



Why Leaders Don’t Admit to Mistakes


There are a lot of potential reasons for when leaders don’t admit to their mistakes. How leaders handle a given situation could vary by case, context, and players. But one thing I’ve observed throughout my career is the sheer amount of pressure leaders put on themselves to be “the expert.”



It makes sense that leaders who were promoted through a technical path would frame decisions through a technical lens, but according to a 2021 HBR article, these technical skills “struggle to inspire, coach, co-create, and build commitment to a shared vision to strengthen ownership and accountability in their teams.”



The result may be not only a struggle to lead and inspire others, but a lack of growth and expansion of leaders themselves, which reinforces a fixed mindset. This can in turn reduce employee satisfaction and increase turnover.


I’m sure that while reading this, someone from your past or present workplace is coming to mind. I’m also sure that if we’re open to self-reflection, we can all identify times in our career when we’ve not been as forthcoming or open as we later felt we should have. (For deeper introspection on this, ask yourself what situations, stakes, or players were involved in those occasions.)


The point is not that leaders should be perfect. Instead, it is about developing a willingness to be introspective, notice the impact of our behavior, and challenge ourselves to change course where helpful.



The Cultural Ripple Effect of a Growth Mindset



According to Dweck, employees of companies that exemplify a growth mindset feel more empowered, committed, and receive more support for collaboration and innovation.


These institutional benefits require leadership by example. When leaders can admit to their mistakes and model a growth mindset, other employees will follow.



Moving from Expert to Example


Whether positive or negative, work cultures will emulate their leaders. Especially in times of uncertainty, employees look for cues and behaviors to follow. When a leader is unwilling to admit to their mistakes, their employees won’t be either.


Further, if the corporate culture values perfection, its employees might fear negative repercussions from admitting to mistakes. These conditions can lead to hiding, or covering up, mistakes. The institutional impact of such behavior can range from high employee turnover, to reparations or other legal action, to negative reputational effects—all of which are costly in a multitude of ways.


On the other hand, a company’s willingness to discuss failure openly can lead to increased innovation. If employees don’t fear punitive action out of failing, they are more likely to offer novel, outside-the-box ideas that support both their learning and bigger company thinking. This can activate discussions and spark improvements that reach beyond hierarchies.



The Benefits of Leading by Example Through Admitting to Failure


When a leader is willing to admit to what they don’t know, several benefits take place:


  1. Through leadership by example, employees feel safer and more willing to admit to their own mistakes, which humanizes the workplace. It also contributes to a culture where people are valued for their whole self, rather than simply their (perfectionistic) performance.

  2. Cultures that allow employees to admit to mistakes also allow for more learning and improvement. When an employee hides their mistakes, they also close the opportunity to learn or be coached on new ways of thinking. An environment that allows for admission of mistakes not only reduces the likelihood that employees will repeat those mistakes, but also opens the door to professional development.

  3. Admitting to mistakes invites others into creative discussions, ideating, and exchanging knowledge. Learning organizations have the potential to be more innovative, keeping them more relevant and impactful.


Modeling the Way


As leaders, we can lead by example by admitting to our mistakes openly and often. By doing so, we are modeling the movement from a closed, command-and-control structure to leadership as an inclusive conversation.



Does this resonate with you? Have you been a part of a growth or fixed organization, and what were the benefits and downsides? Feel free to comment or share on social media.


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