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Should leaders admit or hide a critical mistake?

Let's describe a hypothetical situation, just for the sake of this discussion.


You are a new MD and you need to make some courageous decisions. You have no previous experience as MD and you try to postpone some of the decisions till the very last minute. Then you finally make a decision.

2 months later, you do realize that you have made a big mistake. This is a critical mistake which effect badly one of the areas under your responsibility. You have the perspective required to acknowledge the fact that you are responsible for the given situation. The question is what do you do?

Do you admit that you have made a mistake? By doing so, you may be risking your new role reputation as you are constantly under the spotlight. Your future and credibility are on the stake here... Looking at the bright side, you will be known as a leader who set an example, admit mistakes and correct what is needed, accordingly. It is difficult and takes courage, but it is the right thing to do as a leader.

The alternative is burying or hiding your mistake. It may be easier in the short term as your reputation will not be harmed (yet). However, from the nature of mistakes, errors tend to intensify as time goes by. Moreover, you will need to deal with the consequences in the middle and long term, working harder to compensate or even cover your error. Choosing this approach you may maintain your reputation as a good manager, capable of handling difficult tasks...

The two options mentioned above reflects, in my opinion, the fundamental difference between a leader and manager. It is way beyond the concept of admitting a mistake.

Considering the above situation, what would you do? Which approach would you choose in such circumstances?

25 Replies

Rob Gropper
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Rob Gropper Entrepreneur
Director at PetHero, SPC - Member at Eastside Incubator - Principal at Tuxedo Technologies Group
we all make mistakes. If we are not making mistakes we are not pushing hard enough or fast enough. Im my experience it virtually always works out best in the long run to tackle mistakes head-on and early. The longer you wait the bigger they snowball. If you have bad news or even think you might have bad news bring it up early and get past it. The key, of course, is to learn from said mistakes which is why there is no substitute for experience. If this person were an experience MD would you expect them to make this same mistake?
Matthew Mellor
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Matthew Mellor Advisor
CEO of Strenuus

The third is to hide the situation and have it come to light later that you attempted to hide it. Given the high probability and risk of #3, option #1 is the only option.

It's only a mistake if you don't learn from it.

Art Yerkes
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Art Yerkes Entrepreneur
Computer Software Professional
I assume MD above doesn't mean a medical doctor. At least managing a technology project, errors amplify over time, and generally the cost of an error is time to redo engineering or retrofit systems that were designed for the wrong assumptions.

Considering reputation, one should take an amount of time appropriate to the project length to either gather input or consider how you would solve the problem in the least cost way before disclosing. Presented as the solution to an unforseen problem or an effort to analyze a potential problem, there isn't necessarily negativity associated with it. Also, this is a reason for leaders to be a bit humble and not take credit for everything; you won't be directly blamed if you need to back up and you might look like a hero instead.

Regarding covering, from above one might look great, but people who work for them won't be fooled (at least not for long). They are likely not to have great support forming new projects or retaining employees who have other choices. In technology it matters, it might not elsewhere.

Also consider that the problem might not be as difficult or severe as you think it is if you allow cooler heads to think it over, once you've decided that you must present it. It's possible that there's an easy interim fix that can be done without much disruption that you're too focused on the problem to consider. Both of these are practical reasons to bring the error up.

Note that one part of the psychology of team vs individual responsibility in agile processes is to keep one person (at least theoretically) from critically owning a bad choice and therefore having an incentive to hide it. IMO this is an overlooked and often poorly implemented aspect of most agile processes that should get more attention.
Gregg Powers
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Gregg Powers Entrepreneur
Principal at CxO Exchange
Admit. Always Sent from my iPhone
John Forge
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John Forge Entrepreneur
Serial entrepreneur, advanced technology executive. Innovator and strategy coach
If you understand what honor is, you should not ask the question... and if you do'nt, you cannot answer it anyway...
Mark Bain
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0
Mark Bain Advisor
President
Easy question... admit and own your mistake. Turn it into a learning experience for all. Create a culture where people can fail and grow. That's how you win. And how you lead.
Kevin Carney
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Kevin Carney Entrepreneur
Content Marketing Training and Consulting
DO NOT cover up. Covering up never ends well.
Raghu Ananthanarayanan
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Raghu Ananthanarayanan Entrepreneur
Founder Flame TAOKnoware and Chief Mentor at Ritambhara
I have been in this situation. I admitted my mistake, and did a thorough analysis with my team. It created a climate of transparency and openness that made the team trust each other. It was great in the long run but painful in the short run.
Ian Homer
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Ian Homer Entrepreneur
Coach To Executives and Business Owners
Leaders must try and let go of thinking they have to have all the answers. You can't and things are just changing too fast to even try. As they say better to 'fess up and ask for help in making a better decision next time.
Ian
Gina Gianatasio Michnowicz
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CEO, Co-Founder at Union+Webster
You have to admit your mistake. We ask our teams to take ownership for mistakes so as leaders we need to do the same. We need to also provide the plan for not making the same mistake again. Nobody is perfect. If you make the same mistake more than once, people can lose faith.
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