by Stephanie Overby

It Pays to Say You’re Sorry

Jun 09, 2010
Relationship Building

Owning up to your mistakes can improve your business relationships and yield results.

When you think about important leadership qualities, vulnerability doesn’t spring to mind.

That’s a big problem in today’s business world, says leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni. “We’re taught to never let them see you sweat. But when we do make a mistake, other people see it even if we don’t admit it,” says Lencioni, author of the book Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding the Three Fears that Sabotage Client Loyalty. “I say raise your arms and let them see you sweat. Have the confidence to acknowledge a mistake—that shows you’re going to deal with it.”

The press is full of recent examples of leaders refusing to fess up to very public failings, from financial malfeasance to product defects to oil spills. Yet even though the cover-up can be worse than the crime, baring it all isn’t easy to do. Three fears keep us from copping to problems, says Lencioni: fear of losing a job, fear of being embarrassed and fear of feeling inferior.

Lencioni, whose firm has worked with CIOs at Nike, Pacific Gas and Electric, and Novartis, says it’s the third fear that tends to plague IT. “I know plenty of CEOs who work with CIOs who are competent, even brilliant, but incapable of admitting a mistake.”

One way to overcome this tendency is to purposefully put yourself in a lower position. Take on dirty work no one else wants or give all the credit to a business partner. By deflating yourself, you will gain the trust and respect of others.

Getting naked can be a tough sell to IT leaders already feeling exposed by short tenures, shadow IT organizations, shrinking budgets and CFO takeovers. But don’t confuse vulnerability with weakness, the author warns. Acknowledging a slip-up takes the sting out of it and is one of an IT leader’s most powerful tools.

Still need convincing? Think about what you want in your own service providers. “CIOs manage a truckload of vendors,” says Lencioni, “and nothing annoys them more than when [vendors] won’t admit something they did wrong.”

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, CIO and managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates, says coming clean has helped her build a more robust relationship with the business. “Most of our clients are not comfortable with change or technology. When we ask them to adopt our solutions, we are asking them to expose their vulnerabilities,” Fitzpatrick says. “By admitting our vulnerabilities, we become more of a partner, sharing the risks required to change the business and help it grow.”

Saying you blew it also makes you a more effective team-builder. “People walk through fire for leaders who are vulnerable,” says Lencioni, who also wrote New York Times best seller The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. “If you don’t do that for your people, they [won’t] do it for their clients.”

Fitzpatrick encourages her employees to be up-front about problems during project updates in public forums. “I consistently tell people that those who bring their issues to the forefront when we can still do something to remove obstacles will be given the help they need to succeed, and then [I] follow through on that promise in a very public way,” she says. “It has helped to quickly transform the tone of our organization and our ability to more consistently deliver on our promises.”

None of this is about embracing incompetence. “Emotional intelligence matters. No one likes false modesty,” he says.

Most organizations won’t punish you for making mistakes, says Lencioni. So if you’re reluctant to own up to one because you think it will cost you your job, that mistake is the least of your professional problems. It’s unlikely you could ever succeed, he says, in an organization that won’t give you room to fail.