A President's Reflections

In Praise of Mistakes and Humility

Posted on November 18, 2019

Universities are “expert cultures,” where status accrues with each successive degree and being really smart is valued most. In such a culture, mistakes are often treated as failures of intelligence or capacity and asking for help or admitting struggle is seen as weakness. The irony here is that universities, of all organizations, mostly squander the rich learning that comes from failure. I worry that we are not as good a learning organization as we need to be to thrive in an era of enormous change.

We often share an understanding that something didn’t go as planned or that we outright got it wrong, but we rarely do a post-mortem to really dig in, learn, and get better. Sometimes later the thing comes up and someone makes a passing comment suggesting that he or she knows what really happened and I often think, “I’m pretty sure that’s not what happened.” Or “That’s not the lesson I’d take from that experience.” But how would we know, we’ve never talked about it.

Our old friend and frequent consultant, Preston Yarborough of the Center for Creative Leadership, sent me this short read that really resonated with me: 

https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/psychological-safety-according-to-edmondson#.XaxJ6477hf0

I was particularly struck by this passage:

In the mid-1990s, as a first-year doctoral student, Amy Edmondson set out to investigate whether high-performing medical teams made more or fewer mistakes than low-performing teams.

To conduct her research, Edmondson collected survey data to indicate whether teams were high-performing or low-performing, and then compared that data to statistics on which teams made the most mistakes. Simple, right?

However, when she put the data side-by-side, she noticed something puzzling: her highest-performing teams weren’t making the fewest mistakes, they were making the most.

How could that be possible?

Amy Edmondson, now a Harvard Business School professor said, “The good teams, I suddenly thought, don’t make more mistakes; they report more.”

In that spirit, I’ll share a recent leadership stumble of my own making. We had a recent situation where a really important opportunity was in front of us and the person on my team leading it – let’s use the name Sally – said a couple of things in preparation for the key meeting that gave me pause. I didn’t stop the conversation to ask what she meant – first mistake. The meeting didn’t go well, we failed to get the deal, and Sally had a plausible explanation.

Yet, those original statements bothered me, so on my own reached out to the external party and asked if I could come visit. I flew out and we got the conversation back on track, but rather than sit down with Sally, I moved the negotiations ahead on my own. Worse, I did it without much involving her and she was left on the sidelines, occasionally asking how it was going. We got the deal and I felt good about it. But what had I done with Sally? I failed her when her original comments came up, not pausing and having what might have been an instructive coaching conversation (that might have prevented the initial failure of the discussions). I then stepped in and though I got things back on track, Sally felt frozen out and learned nothing from this stumble, depriving her of a great opportunity (we often learn most from our mistakes) and the chance, with coaching, to get the situation right or at least be part of the team that did, earning some measure of redemption. I apologized.

The “I’ll do it myself” leadership syndrome, and its corollary “do it exactly in this way” syndrome, are much on my mind these days. I think it’s related to how too many of our people lead, starting with me. We get a lot of feedback from employees about wanting more “coaching and less supervision.” We talk about empowering people, but too often penalize them if they exercise their own judgement.  

Without going into the details, I came upon a case last week when a no-brainer decision was bounced to three different people because none of the three felt empowered to do the obvious. All were scared to make a decision maybe not theirs to make, despite the obvious nature of the thing. They were not in a psychologically safe space to make an easy decision, so imagine their paralysis if faced with a genuinely tough call. 

Again, from the Edmondson article:

Before diving into my interview with Edmondson, it’s critical to note — psychological safety isn’t equivalent with kindness, as I’d originally suspected.

For instance, you might feel like your coworkers are incredibly nice to you. They ask about your weekend, remember your birthday, and even invite you for after-work drinks.

And yet, at meetings, maybe you still find it difficult to speak up. Perhaps you’re nervous you’ll look stupid or you’ve seen how closed-off your manager is to new ideas, so you figure, What’s the point?

When speaking with me, Edmondson described a psychologically safe work environment as “one in which people absolutely take seriously and believe that it will be without punishment, without negative consequences. That they’re able to speak up with work-relevant ideas, questions, concerns, mistakes, and problems.”

How much of that dynamic exists here at SNHU? I’m pressing my team to ask more questions, set the destination, but not map the route (empower their people to get us there in ways they know best), and become better coaches, ask more questions. I’m working on it and I’m uneven at it at best, but trying.

The current issue of Harvard Business Review (Nov/Dec issue) has an article that speaks directly to this change in management and leadership culture, one that is happening in many places. It couldn’t be more timely for us: https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-leader-as-coach.

This leadership shift will be also hard for our people. Even as they ask for more empowerment, it is often easier to let the boss decide, to not speak up (especially if expressing the outlier perspective), to let someone tell you the steps instead of figuring them out yourself. To ask for help, to be vulnerable in an “expert culture,” and to say “I think I messed this up.”  

At my last team retreat, we adopted the Wentworth Accords, an agreement around principles or values for the leadership team. The acronym is CHRTR (as in a new ‘charter” we set for ourselves.) The accords are detailed below:

Courage

●     We face one another without fear or rancor.  

●     We resolve our conflicts when and as they arise

●     We have the courage to trust our teams to do their work.

Humility

●     The Wentworth Accords values “Humility” as a foundational practice. 

●     We are open to feedback about, and insight into, the nature of our leadership.

●     We retain a reverence for what we do not know.      

●     We are not afraid to ask for help

●     We readily admit our mistakes and acknowledge our limitations

●     We are consistently supportive of each other.      

Respect

●     We encourage and respect diverse identities, ideas, and perspectives.  

●     We treat everyone fairly and equitably

●     We are present and inclusive.

●     We put our mission and people ahead of our own ambitions.

Transparency

●     We openly acknowledge what we are asking people to do. 

●     We relentlessly engage the appropriate people in conversations and respect one another as thought-partners

●     We are reliable and trustworthy.

●     We strive for timely communication. 

Rigor

●     We are tenacious. 

●     We will not innovate for the sake of innovation.

●     Once a final decision has been made, we commit to supporting the decision. 

●     We commit to creating new leaders

●     We relentlessly collaborate with our colleagues to drive learner success.

It has been fascinating to observe the team try to live up to the Accords. I’m listening for how often they use the language or invoke some aspect of CHRTR and observing where they are changing their leadership and management practices. I’ve heard some of them say, “Well, in the spirit of the Accords, I have to (stop, pause, take big breath) ask you a set of questions here, because this course of action doesn’t make sense to me. At least not yet.” Someone on my team yesterday described how she is changing her own team meetings, moving from round the table dog and pony updates to leading with more questions and requests for counsel. 

It’s really hard work to change one’s thinking and practices. We recently announced a modest reorganization with some new roles and a grouping of operational entities. It was an occasion for me to set the destination, but when asked “What will we call it?” to say “I’ve given it a placeholder name, but you all get together and decide.” And when asked how “How will the entities within this affiliate group work together?” to say “That seems like your first order of business — you tell me.” And when two leaders were sorting out how they would create synergy and not duplication, to say “Take the time to work through that and come back and tell me” and when they did, to invite others to respond and to ask questions instead of bestowing blessing or objections. I’m pretty sure I had really good answers to all those questions and could have saved everyone a ton of time, but A) as my earlier examples show, I’m often wrong about my really good answers when left to myself and B) the point is to empower people to learn, develop, and work out the best answers. And that requires humility.

It’s how we get smarter as an organization, how our people become better leaders, and how we continue to learn — even after all these years as leaders. It’s how we become the leaders our people are asking for and deserve.

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