At work, some people just won’t admit to making a mistake. They have a gripping fear that it will indict their character, attract more work and invite future blame — not to mention, ruin a perfect record of never having admitted to one before.
Illustrations: Jayachandran / Mint
To excel at never admitting mistakes, you have to take care to burnish your unaccountability and “sorrylessness”. It helps, for example, to have a fall guy, someone who has responsibility for a project who is less known to your boss than you are. Also, any mistake made under time pressure can be blamed on a lack of time. Soon enough, you’ll combine elements, blaming the lack of time you had because of the sluggishness of the fall guy.
These are the tactics Robert Wert, a former lawyer and current management consultant, gleaned from one of his former colleagues who actually “planned the blame shifting in advance, evaluated the lay of the land minute by minute and acted accordingly,” he says.
This co-worker got so good that he had a hierarchy of blame takers. It began with outsiders: co-counsel, clients’ in-house counsel, a court ruling, or clients’ insane expectations. Short of those, he made sure to work with perfectionist colleagues. “If something went wrong, they would find ways to blame themselves,” says Wert.
As for the stainless attorney: “I never saw him take responsibility for any error,” Wert added.
Fluff artists sometimes get their just desserts. But in too many companies, nothing ever catches up with them. In fact, they seem to thrive, not in spite of their ability to avoid accountability but because of it.
Colleagues fantasize about some day witnessing a tearful mea culpa. But that’s like waiting for a love letter that was never written.
Meanwhile, the mistake goes unrepaired. “Nobody fixes problems they deny they have,” says Marshall Goldsmith, a management consultant who devotes much effort trying to convince executives to apologize. “We get focused so much on winning that when we do something wrong, we don’t even think it’s wrong.”
This type of delusion is explored by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, in her book Mindset: The Psychology of Success. In the business world and elsewhere, people either have a healthy belief in growth, whereby they expect to evolve their talents over time, or they possess a fixed mindset, whereby they believe their talents are innate traits that will carry them to the top.
The fixed folk “believe mistakes reflect on their deepest abilities and call them into question,” says Dweck.
When she tested students on a difficult intelligence test and gave them a chance to look at the results of people who had done better and those who had done worse, the people in a fixed mindset wanted only to look at those who did worse. They didn’t learn anything or confront their deficiencies.
But they felt great.
If you’re a fixed mindset person, “you want to wallow in your success and disown your failures rather than rectify them,” which is what the growth mindset people did. Another study showed we can adopt a company’s “fixed mindset” culture faster than you can say, “Sheep”.
Some offices, such as Colin Johnston’s former company, reward not apologizing. One of his colleagues created a floating-rate loan that failed to recognize that a sharp rise in short-term rates could adversely affect the borrower’s ability to pay it back. He dismissed the warnings, and borrowers defaulted.
The non admitter simply pronounced it all “an aberration”. The dodge worked.
“He was promoted to a department head,” says Johnston.
Arguably, the biggest mistake committed isn’t by people who never admit them, but by their bosses who allow it. These managers see their denier as talented enough to be worth more than the cost that results from feigned infallibility.
Bob Becker once worked with a head engineer who made mistakes on avionics devices but would never admit his errors when confronted. He would say things such as, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“He was able to get away with this because he had an immediate manager who believed in him wholeheartedly,” says Becker.
“What damage are you inflicting on the others?” asks Becker, who spouted all the work that had to be done cleaning up the engineer’s mess.
An executive at Robert Gately’s former company was never wrong—even when he was provably wrong and the mistake was minor. That includes the time he—an American—spelled the word defense, as in department of defense, with a “c”.
So when he made bigger mistakes, such as implementing decisions regarding pay cuts and overhead pricing that reduced revenue instead of expanding it, it was pointless to expect that justice would prevail. “You’ll get justice,” says Gately of that culture, “after you’re dead.”
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