How to Be Wrong Without Losing Face
Acknowledge it publicly, clearly and without qualifications.
So you’ve made a big mistake at work. You’re the boss, and you want to save face. After all, you’re the leader of an organization; it’s your job to inspire the team, instill courage, provide direction, and continue signing those paychecks that keep roofs over heads and meals on tables.
A lot of people look up to you for a lot of things. A lot of people look at you, too. Investors, competitors, your executive team -- at each step of the way, you can feel the eyes of very shrewd men and women assessing your performance. This can lead to a tremendous amount of pressure, and naturally you have a strong desire to come across as competent, cool and trustworthy -- hell, even infallible -- every second that you can.
And then you blunder. You make a bad decision that costs precious resources. You hurt an employee’s feelings without meaning to or miss a tight deadline by inches. What do you do in these situations? How can you maintain that aura of cool capability when you’ve just stepped in it? Here are three basic suggestions:
1. Get over yourself.
This is the first and most important move. Recognize that your desire to save face is based, in part, on good old-fashioned vanity. When you get called “boss” often enough, you start to believe it.
All of us are plagued with some form of vanity, all to different degrees. (I think there’s a Bible verse about this somewhere, but it’s been a long time since I went to Sunday School.) Fortunately, there are tried and true practices for overcoming it.
Set a goal to compliment someone every single day, for example. Don’t overdo it -- if you suddenly lavish praise on someone who isn’t used to that sort of behavior from you, they’ll probably feel more suspicious than flattered. Instead, start small. Train yourself to notice the little things about your colleagues that you truly appreciate. The person who arrives at the office a half hour early to get a jump on the day. The one who’s constant positivity is infectious, and so on. You’re surrounded by amazing human beings, so take the time to remind them of that.
2. Don’t put lipstick on the pig.
I grew up on a farm, so the above expression has a particular resonance for me. It underscores the sheer ridiculousness of trying to save face when it’s obvious to everyone around you that you’ve lost it.
Pigs aren’t exactly eye candy to begin with, but they can be appealing enough if you simply accept them for what they are. Try to dress one up, however, and you instantly transform “not eye candy” into “laughably ridiculous.”
Be aware of the impression you make when you scramble to turn an unforced error into some sort of valuable group lesson, or, worse, pretend that it didn’t happen and ignore it completely. No one’s falling for it. Suck it up and accept that snout and curly tail as a momentary costume. Give yourself permission to have a laugh at your own expense. There’s nothing more psychologically freeing than a little self-deprecation every now and then.
3. Admit that you screwed up.
When JFK went on national television and took full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs disaster, the nation didn’t throw up their hands in collective horror and ask themselves how they could have possible elected such a moron to high office. The opposite was true. His popularity rose. Far from losing the trust of the citizenry, he gained even more of it. There’s something inspiring about a leader who can come right out and confess their faults.
The reasons for this aren’t hard to discern. For one, you become relatable, because there isn’t a single person on the planet who hasn’t been in your shoes. Secondly, letting down your guard, showing vulnerability, is attractive and inspiring. Instead of locking the door to your soul, you let folks in.
The instant you realize you’re wrong, the instant you figure it out, acknowledge it. Acknowledge it publicly, clearly and without qualifications. Abstain from disingenuous, mealy-mouthed garbage about how “it’s my fault but also so-and-so’s fault and also look how busy my schedule is and put yourself in my shoes and blah blah blah.”
The best leaders take ownership. They take ownership of success and failure. The former they share; the latter they shoulder. In the end, the sole way to save face is to lose it honestly and with a sense of humor.
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