Credit and Blame at Work

Exploring the psychological forces at play while you work.

Screwing up in the workplace

The president screwed up in the workplace. So can you.

Much has been said and written about how President Obama differs from his predecessor in the oval office in both substance and style. These distinctions were highlighted yesterday when President Obama candidly admitted "I screwed up" in the cabinet nominations he had made. He acknowledged that his selections hadn't been in keeping with the spirit of the pledges he had made during the presidential campaign.

Leaders of any kind often face dilemmas when they, or the people who work for them, make mistakes. President Bush himself admitted that he had a difficult time articulating the mistakes he had made in office. While admitting mistakes can make a leader seem flawed and vulnerable, it can also make a leader come across as self-critical and willing to learn.

Some great business leaders, like Michael Dell, founder of the computer company that bears his name, set an example for self-criticism by engaging executive coaches and sharing the feedback they receive. Not only did Dell disclose that he was being coached in order to improve his performance as a leader, he even shared the criticisms he had gotten from the people who work for him. Demonstrating this level of humility and self-reflection sets a great example for others in the organization to solicit input and feedback in order to learn from, and avoid repeating, mistakes.

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In my experience as a coach and consultant, leaders who are willing to admit mistakes are not only much more likely to inspire confidence in their leadership ability, they also create open and self-reflective cultures in which people focus more on fixing problems than on pointing fingers.

On the topic of how to deal with screw-ups in the workplace, here's an excellent article by Stephanie Rosenbloom from the New York Times.

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., is a workplace consultant, an industrial and organizational psychologist, and an adjunct professor at New York University.

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