Leaders make mistakes

Ethics, morality and values-based leadership are high on any thought leaders agenda. The realisation that materialism, self-gain and profit above ethics are no longer tenable, and leaders have to be precise their organisational and personal values not only have to match but must be demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. When leaders make mistakes, they must take the opportunity to reinforce their values in the way they respond.

Values are key

Some years ago, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Editor, Jessica Bennett,  invited applications for an “unpaid intern” with a description of the desired skill set and expectations in terms of the intern’s availability. The request was a stark demonstration of how questionable values can destroy trust.

The response was immediate, with most responders expressing “disgust” at the decision to attempt to get unpaid help. At the same time, Lean In’s purpose of promoting and fostering equality in the workplace appeared to be compromised. To make matters worse, it seemed, Sheryl Sandberg’s widely reported sale of  $91 Million Worth Of Facebook Stock suggested the organisation’s founder was not short of a bob or two. Some brave responders disagreed and suggested the opportunity to gain the experience Lean In could offer would benefit the intern that working for free was a “gift”.

When leaders make mistakes, actions speak louder than words

When this post first went live, Sheryl Sandberg had yet to respond. The Los Angeles Times had published a short statement from Lean In. “Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Lean In, said in a statement. “LeanIn.Org, like many nonprofits, has enjoyed the participation of part-time volunteers to help us advance our education and peer support programs.” Whatever the intention behind the Facebook status, the announcement not only caused readers to question Lean In’s organisational values. It demonstrated how different perspectives and views take on a life of their own. The announcement called into question the values of the leader.

The problem with values at work is that actions always speak louder than words. Leaders who say one thing while doing another are simply creating an environment of distrust and division. Care needs to be taken that all actions are aligned to fundamental values. This is true not only when public announcements take place but when internal decisions are being taken. Every action is conveyed out, and observers will note whether the leader likes it or not.

No communication lets everyone make up their minds

For Lean In, there may have been several valid explanations for calling to recruit unpaid people to work for the organisation. Still, lack of clarification or communication is allowing people to make up their minds. At best, this is a poorly worded gaffe. At worst, it demonstrates a lack of commitment to organisational values and, therefore, calls into question the effectiveness of the organisation’s aims.  When leaders make mistakes, there will be times when they either communicate inadequately or make a wrong call.

Making the most of opportunities

I’ve made many mistakes in my time, and the incident which springs to mind happened only a few years ago. I am one of those leaders who make mistakes.  Not once, but many times.  On one occasion,  I had worked hard with my team to foster a culture of inclusion and collaboration.  I was keen to make sure everyone was heard and had a say. I also wanted to offer a service to our customers that were second to none. The team was tasked to develop a strategy to do so.

Ever an opportunist, while this process was going on, I got the chance to sign the entire team up for accredited customer service training for peanuts. The training provider had access to grant funding. After a pretty unscheduled demonstration, I signed on the dotted line. I was pleased with myself.  I thought I had bagged a brilliant bargain and an excellent opportunity for my team.

Making a gaffe

As soon as I made the announcement, I realised, of course, I had made a tremendous gaffe. Notwithstanding, the training and assignment time was entirely in work-time. Even though the team were going to get a recognised qualification and learn the skills of brilliant customer service.  All for a price which hardly made a dent in our ever pressed budget.  I had violated at least three fundamental values, which I had been at pains to stress over the months I had worked with the team. The first one was to communicate with them; the second was to consult about significant decisions that affected them. The third was to allow them to develop the overall customer service strategy and take ownership of it.

Thankfully they took me to task about my actions in no uncertain terms. I was within a hairsbreadth of losing their trust forever. I knew my intentions were good, but I also knew I had to do something honest and integrity to make matters right. The following framework can be applied to most situations, although they may come in different orders depending on the impact of the blunder. Luckily I realised what needed to happen when leaders make mistakes.

Admit you were wrong and apologise

I told them I was sorry and honestly explained that I had acted too quickly in my enthusiasm to capture what I thought was a fantastic opportunity.

Set out your original intention

I wanted to be able to help my team develop exceptional customer service skills. There wasn’t an expectation of them to study or attend workshops outside of working hours. I also wanted to give them an externally recognisable qualification, adding to their bank of transferable skills. Most of the time, we do make decisions with the best of intentions, even if we haven’t thought through the entirety of our actions. Without being defensive, it is part of being honest to describe your reasons for making the decision.  If well-intentioned, then your reasoning is a valid factor.

Get Feedback

It’s no good forging on and making good without really listening to what your team are saying. If you want to make things right, you cannot assume anything. When I first heard objections to the proposal for training, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that the team didn’t want to commit. Luckily enough, I had enough experience to realise this probably wasn’t the case.  When I realised it was because they thought I had trodden on their space and usurped their decision-making powers, I could not but be grateful that the very values I had tried to introduce were alive and well.

Understand Your Bottom Line

Sometimes good decisions are made in the wrong way, and the outcome is unnegotiable. At other times, there are some options where you can make some compromise. You can find a solution within those parameters. In some cases, you have to put your hands up and ditch your decision. In this situation, having listened to team members, I gave them back their decision making power. I made entry onto the course optional. It was understood we had to find a way to help those not undertaking the training to find a way to meet the aspirational standards we needed. As it happens, everyone undertook the training.  100% of attendees passed and gained a formal qualification.

Make Amends

The customer service you remember is when the provider or supplier goes the extra mile. Things may go wrong. But it is how the supplier deals with the situation that you remember best. It is the same with making a gaffe. It is how you subsequently deal with it which is at the heart of your redemption. As well as all of the above steps, in this case, I asked the team how they wanted to interact with me in the future. I made sure I fully informed them about potential developments. Also, I committed to consulting with them.  I followed up with my promise because I realised how tenuously close I had been to losing trust.

It never became apparent what the intentions behind the “Lean In” situation were in reality. It may have been decided to quietly withdraw the post and make no announcement. If you find yourself in such a position, following the five steps above or taking similar action to deal with your gaffe won’t hurt.

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