Leadership

The Art of Owning Up to Your Mistakes

By / Sep 5, 2014 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Thinkstock)

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell surprised a lot of people last week when he openly admitted to making a big mistake in the way his office responded to a domestic violence incident involving a player. Goodell’s actions could be a model for owning up to a failure.

Update: At around 3 p.m. today and in response to a disturbing video released overnight by pop culture website TMZ that shows Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancee, the Baltimore Ravens have terminated Rice’s contract. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also announced that Rice has been suspended indefinitely.

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you react to those mistakes and the steps you take to correct them that speak volumes. There may be no better example of that right now than National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The act of admitting a mistake can be difficult, but the feeling afterward is “liberating for both the individual and the organization.”

Earlier this month, the NFL was widely criticized for its poor handling of a domestic violence case involving Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens. Rice, who was arrested after a February incident in which he allegedly struck his then-fiancee (now his wife), entered a pretrial diversion program for first-time offenders, and the charges against him were dropped. In July, the NFL imposed a two-game suspension on Rice—a penalty that was seen by many as far too lenient.

Goodell defended the decision at first but later admitted to making a mistake.

In an August 28 letter to the owners of the league’s 32 franchises, Goodell wrote, “My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right.”

The letter outlined a new domestic violence policy for the league, including educational programs, services for at-risk families, and a minimum six-game suspension for a first offense.

From Mistake to Response

While the act of admitting a mistake or failure can be difficult for a leader, the feeling afterward is one Pat Nichols, president of Transition Leadership International, described as “liberating for both the individual and the organization.”

Such an admission frees the person who acknowledges the error from the need to conceal it and opens up the possibility for the organization to begin to respond to it, Nichols said.

“You want people to be able to say, ‘I’m wrong,’ and you want them to trust you to help sort it out so that they’re not carrying that burden alone,” he said.

But it takes time and practice for a leader to get comfortable admitting a mistake.

“The technique that I use as a CEO when something goes wrong on my watch is I try to take four times as much responsibility for it as I think is really my responsibility,” said Nichols. “We all tend to underestimate our own contributions to problems, so I’ve got to double my assessment just to get it right, and then I want to double it again in order to send the signal to the organization that it’s OK to make a mistake.”

And once the admission has been made, the next step is to shift the focus from the error to what the organization can learn from it and apply in the future, he said: “We all know that from our personal relationships. As long as we’re struggling with who owns the mistake, it’s so hard to get on to the next phase of the relationship.”

Perfecting the art of owning up to mistakes is crucial because of the environment in which we work, Nichols said.

“Old models get disrupted around us all the time,” he said, “and so living in a more experimental and rapidly changing world, we’ve got to create space for the failure so that people can quickly learn from their mistakes and move on to the next experiment.”

Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. More »

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