Leadership · Management

Should leaders admit or hide a critical mistake?

Meir Amarin Leadership style based on ability to motivate others

December 11th, 2015

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?
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Meir Amarin Leadership style based on ability to motivate others

December 14th, 2015

I have worked for corporates such as AMEX, 3M and Unilever. At the end of the day, you need to to do "the right thing". The right thing, in my opinion (and in this context), is the outcome of being loyal, honest and fair. 

John Forge Serial entrepreneur, advanced technology executive. Innovator and strategy coach

December 11th, 2015

If you understand what honor is, you should not ask the question... and if you do'nt, you cannot answer it anyway...

Gina Michnowicz CEO, Co-Founder at Union+Webster

December 11th, 2015

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.

Bill Allen Senior Vice President/ Team Leader Technology, Media & Telecom

December 11th, 2015

Mistakes are part of learning.  Admit it and move on.  Keep it short and sweet and try not to make the same mistake twice.

Richard McLean Co-Founder Webscale Pty Ltd - KeyPay Cloud Payroll

December 12th, 2015

Perhaps look at the process as a learning experience and share that learning experience with others...

Mistakes are things we all make and they are only an issue if you continue to make the same mistake over and over (not I didn't say twice)

Sharing these things are important and owing them ever more so...

Nofyah Shem Tov

December 16th, 2015

I think admitting mistakes is always good. The question here is where. There are always different levels of consequences to mistakes. And, as you pointed out, usually the earlier a mistake is admitted, the easier it is to cope with the consequences. Sometimes consequences can't be mitigated at all, and those are the most difficult times to admit mistakes and take real courage.

The issue, also, is the organizational makeup. Is the hierarchy designed in such a fashion that honors admitted humans? Some workplaces are so cut-throat that a person would rather resign (or worse) than ever admit any kind of fallibility. This is a real leadership issue - is your organization an organization that is creative and fluid - or is it rigid and harshly competitive?

Rob G

December 11th, 2015

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 CEO of Strenuus

December 11th, 2015

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 Computer Software Professional

December 11th, 2015

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 Principal at CxO Exchange

December 11th, 2015

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