Error Is For the Little People

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This saying is often true, which makes it both funny, and not.

We laugh at first because it changes the second part of Alexander Pope’s famous quote from 1711. We expected “To err is human, to forgive divine” and instead we got a revised and snarky saying about less-than-divine managers. This is humor based on surprise and biting commentary. We love to take the powerful down a peg and ascribe a manager’s success to politics and low virtue.

Corporate leaders and managers might allow some self-deprecating laughter at this, but it does not last long. If you care about organizational culture, this is a truth that hurts. Dishonest dodging of blame for error becomes an unintended consequence in environments where evaluating performance is mostly about punishment and fear.

Error is the gap between performance and expectations, and is all too human. Both the original saying and the altered one agree on this, but then they differ, one telling us something about the Deity the other about corporate leadership. It’s like the Deity to remedy the error, but it is like a manager to find someone to blame for it. The former is to personally own and repair the gap, the latter to distance oneself from it.

This sets up the managers’ choice: You can own it or blame it.

Blaming can masquerade as a kind of messianic bravery. It looks quite active and tough—it looks like you are fixing things—but your kick-butt-take-names swagger breeds fear and lying. Employees can sniff out your avoidance of responsibility for the gap. And based on your example, they are not likely to own the issues any more than you are.

When you own the gap, something different happens. You work the problem and regard your performance as part of the analysis, including your prior decisions, communications, and your commitment to develop others. You are on the hook for this as leader, both in terms of where it went wrong as well as where to go from here. Your sentences cease to begin with “you” and start with “we.”

Never has my estimation of a CEO been higher than when my leader owned up to missing an opportunity that would have put our product in millions of devices around the world. The resultant corporate new trajectory, now bearing fruit in the marketplace, was engaged with enthusiasm because the CEO was bold enough to be honest about his own role in the error.

Consider this: If something needs to be fixed, that something might be you. And now, since you are trying to build a culture of honesty in your organization, you get to lead by example. Your personal identification with the error, your leadership in repairing the gap, can build a trickle-down trust for your org.

So manager, take heart. When I first saw the funny sign, I also laughed because I knew the situations where the joke was painfully true. Yet I also knew that this does not apply to all managers. I’ve worked for several who owned the key issues in the workplace, and who were with me in growth, improvement and ambition.

It can be done. If you pull it off, people will still laugh at this saying, but they will not have you in mind as an illustration of it. Even better, they may think of your legacy as an example that refutes it.

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One thought on “Error Is For the Little People

  1. Good piece, Cal. I have found, having been a manager/leader now for over 30 years, that admitting a mistake, apologizing for an oversight or regret at having missed an opportunity — to those up the food chain, to those reporting to me or those in a body of folks counting on me — puts those listening to you almost in “deer in the headlights” mode. Whether up the food chain, down or sideways (within a peer group), I suppose most folks hear such things so seldom that often there is genuine surprise when they hear an apology or admission of an oversight from me. From those up the food chain, foregiveness, even sympathy, follows in response almost always immediately. Any anger is immediately diffused, often moving into arm-over-the-shoulder commisseration. I believe in the power of sincere apology, which is what I believe I practice when appropriate, or even when the situation is borderline. It’s such a strong tool in shaping the responses of others that I wonder why more people don’t employ it as a survival tool. Just as smiling when you’re not feeling so happy inside can elevate your mood, similarly I think offering an apology even when you’re not certain you are 100% in the wrong or to blame, can elevate one’s acceptance of one’s own fallible humanity.

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