Management Myth 13: I Must Never Admit My Mistakes

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Summary:
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.

About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website, jrothman.com, as well on createadaptablelife.com.

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