Management Myth 13: I Must Never Admit My Mistakes


Managers are people, too. They have bad-manager days. And, even on good-manager days, they can show doubt, weakness, and uncertainty. They can be vulnerable. Managers are not omnipotent. That’s why it’s critical for a manager to admit a mistake immediately.

“Juliet, I really screwed up big time. What am I going to do?” Romeo moaned as he plunked himself down in his VP’s office. “I can tell you, but I can’t admit it to my people. They will never respect me again.”

“If they discover what you did—and they will—they will never forgive you if you don’t tell them yourself. What did you do?”

“I yelled at someone in a meeting.”

“You what?”

Romeo cringed. “I yelled at someone in a meeting. I know, we don’t do that here. But I did. I’ve been having trouble at home. One of the kids has the flu and I haven’t been sleeping. My mother needs to go into assisted living and my sister is in denial. I’m frustrated. I thought I was handling things, but when Chandra missed her deliverables again, I yelled at her in the standup.”

“Romeo, what were you doing in the standup?”

“I want the project to finish.”

“So you were at the standup? You can’t look at the velocity chart and have a private conversation with the project manager?”

“No. We need this team to finish. We have other projects in the queue and with Chandra not finishing her work…”

“Wait just a minute. Are you the manager or the project manager?”

“I’m the manager.”

“What’s your job?”

“My job is to create the environment in which the team can do its best work.

“Can the team members do their best work with you yelling at one of them?”

“No.” Juliet looked at Romeo. He sank back in the chair.

“You know, I did not pressure you for more work. We need to talk about that. But, first let’s talk about the team. What can you do about the team?”

“I can wait until it blows over?”

“No. The longer you wait, the more it will fester. Managers can have a bad-manager day. But you can’t let your bad-manager day create a bad environment for the team. And, if you want the project to finish, you need to talk to the product owner, not just the technical team. Now, you need to acknowledge your behavior and apologize. You need to explain to the team members the results you want and get out of their hair.”

Romeo looked miserable. “I don’t know how to do that.”

Juliet smiled gently. “You can say something like this, ‘I had a bad-manager day today. I yelled at you. I was upset about other things and I took it out on you. I was wrong. I should not have done this. I’m sorry.’”

“OK, can we practice this? I feel terrible.”

Juliet smiled, and said, “Sure, as many times as you like. As long as you apologize today.”

Managers Make Mistakes
Managers are people, too. They have bad-manager days. And, even on good-manager days, they can show doubt, weakness, and uncertainty. They can be vulnerable. Managers are not omnipotent.

That’s why it’s critical for a manager to admit a mistake immediately. Sometimes it’s difficult for managers to see a mistake when they make one. In that case, acknowledge the mistake as quickly as you can, when you realize you have made a mistake. That’s because your mistakes can cause bigger problems.

Manager’s Mistakes Cascade
You know about cascading defects in a program, right? That’s where one defect causes another. You fix one defect and you realize it unmasks more.

When a manager makes a mistake, it’s a similar problem. A manager’s mistake, such as Romeo’s mistake, can cause distrust in the team. With distrust, people are less likely to want to work, or to work together. If there is enough distrust, people look for another job. I bet you’ve seen entire teams of people leave because of one manager. Or, worse, I bet you’ve seen the great people leave, and only the not-so-competent people stay.

Managers Can Rebuild Trust
If a manager addresses mistakes immediately, without letting those mistakes fester, the manager catches those mistakes and starts to rebuild the trust between themselves and the employees.

If you don’t make too many mistakes, people trust you. Your reputation is on your side as a manager. But, if you make management mistakes often, people don’t give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s difficult to recover once you start to have a reputation as a person who yells or manipulates people. A weak manager is one who is untrustworthy for a variety of reasons. People trust strong managers. They don’t trust weak managers.

You Can Make the Wrong Decision and be a Strong Manager
Management is full of tricky decision making. You can’t always tell when you make a decision whether the decision is right or wrong, but you still have to make the decision.

Sometimes, managers think if they don’t make a decision, they will be seen as a strong manager because they waited for “all” the data. But managers almost never have all the data. Managers have to weigh the risks of waiting for the data against the risks of making the decision now. And, they have to stay emotionally balanced while doing it. If you wait too long, people will see you as a weak manager. Make the decision too early, and you’ve cut off options you might have used.

Like I said, management is full of tricky decision making.

Ask for Help
What can you do as a manager to build trust, make better decisions, be a strong manager, and not feel as if you have to do it alone? Ask for help.

Sharing your management pressure can help alleviate it. Romeo could have explained his problem like this: “I’m feeling under pressure today. Dave has asked me to make sure we release this product on time, so we can start his project. I know I’m not the product owner. I know I’m not the project portfolio manager. But I’m feeling the pressure. Can you help me here, team?”

Team members might have responded in any number of ways. They might have told him to see the product owner or the project portfolio management team. The ScrumMaster or agile project manager might have taken him aside and explained where they were headed. Or, if it was defined at the beginning of the project, one of the team members might have explained. But, Romeo never gave the team a chance to help him solve his problem.

Remember, you are human, which means you need to admit your mistakes—right away. Your job as a manager is to provide an environment in which the team can do its best work. In return, the team can help you do your best work.

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