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August 2016
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The Public Manager

The Value of Acknowledging Your Mistakes

Admitting when you're wrong could be one of the most important things you do as a leader.

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Everyone gets it wrong sometimes. Making mistakes is part of life. How we handle situations in which we realize we're wrong, though, says volumes about what kind of person we are. It takes high levels of honesty, integrity, and courage—especially in the public sector—to admit when you're wrong. Perhaps that's why many leaders don't do it.

A recent online survey conducted by Dale Carnegie Training of nearly 3,100 employees across 13 countries found that "admitting when they are wrong" produced the largest gap of any of the leadership behaviors in terms of the difference between its importance to employees and its consistent performance by supervisors. Eighty-one percent of respondents said that having a leader who will admit to being wrong is important or very important to inspiring them to give their best efforts at work, but only 41 percent said their supervisors could be trusted do so consistently—a gap of 40 percent.

The 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) closed in June, and initial results are expected soon. The topline goal was to improve the Employee Engagement Index (EEI) to 67 percent. Research shows that employee engagement is critical to meeting goals. The FEVS itself states that engaged employees are more innovative, productive, committed, and satisfied. It found strong correlations between the EEI and employees' intention to stay, which has important implications given the high cost of turnover in both monetary terms and the loss of organizational knowledge. EEI scores from employees who intend to stay were more than 50 percent higher than those from employees intending to leave (72 percent for stayers versus 47 percent for leavers).

A Matter of Trust

A closer look at the EEI within the 2015 FEVS reveals insights on honesty, integrity, and trust, which provide clues to the link between managers' admitting mistakes and employee engagement:

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  • Only half of federal employees believed their leaders "maintain high standards of honesty and integrity."
  • One-third of employees still said they don't trust or have confidence in their supervisor.

We also studied employees' trust in their supervisors, looking at two dimensions: external reliability, how likely someone is to be honest and trustworthy when dealing with others, and internal reliability, how true they are to their own values and principles. We saw strong correlations between employees' perceptions of their supervisors' reliability and employees' job satisfaction and intent to stay.

So the same positive outcomes of high engagement levels on the part of employees are associated with high levels of reliability on the part of supervisors.

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Setting an Example

Admitting when you're wrong builds trust and shows integrity. Typically, when leaders realize they've made a mistake, others have noticed, too. Leaders who then fail to admit they were wrong leave employees feeling as though their leaders consider being right more important than being honest. Taking responsibility demonstrates that leaders value integrity over the easier paths of laying blame or hoping their mistake won't be exposed.

Admitting when you're wrong also shows you're aware of, and therefore in a position to learn from, your mistakes. This can build further confidence in your leadership.

The Number-One Behavior

In our research, leaders' willingness to "admit when they are wrong" was the number-one tested behavior in terms of its positive impact on employees' job satisfaction and intent to stay.

More than a hundred years ago, Dale Carnegie advised, "When you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically." That advice holds true today. While good leaders will usually make the right calls, even the best will undoubtedly have opportunities to prove their reliability, trustworthiness, and integrity by owning up to their mistakes.

About the Author

Chris McCloskey is head of Government Solutions for Dale Carnegie Training. 

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