When someone is selected to be a manager, there is an implicit understanding between them and their superiors that one of their most important responsibilities is to “get things right” whatever those things happen to be in their particular line of work. This understanding is seldom made explicit either orally or in writing. It shows up in performance reviews only if a manager continually gets things wrong. And few managers actually consciously think about it often, because getting things right seems so logically a part of being a responsible figure, that it is simply taken as a given
Unfortunately, because we are human, the goal of “getting things right” often comes into direct — often unconscious — conflict with another basic human desire: “to be right”. Who among us is un-phased emotionally when: we make a mistake; discover that a decision we made has not worked out as planned and announced; or when we appear to have missed something important prior to a negative occurence for which we bear some responsibility.
Confronted with these emotionally uncomfortable situations, our instinct is naturally to shift into a defensive mode, to look for some rational explanation sufficient to absolve ourselves of any blame, or at our worst, to look for somebody else to blame. The desire “to be right” is strong in all of us and the more serious the consequences of not being so, the greater the urge to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for whatever went wrong.
Some managers struggle more than others with admitting fault but all of us, from time to time, struggle just a little. That is why personal maturity helps a lot. Mature individuals — like Captain Asoh who I discussed in a recent blog concerning being accountable — have the courage to own their one mistakes, bad decisions, and missed signs of impending trouble. They are able to place “getting it right” ahead of “being right“ no matter the blow to their ego and thereby avoid those embarrassing moments where someone protests their innocence in front of colleagues and co-workers who know better. Beyond courage, however, maturity carries with it two additional qualities, that when cultivated, help a great deal when we obviously have not gotten it right.
The first is a sense of perspective. Perspective allows us to mentally step outside a situation, see it in a broader context, identify those aspects that really matter, and focus on the part that we now need to get right. Perspective also allows a manager to acknowledge that his or her ego and image is secondary to an important task at hand. One of the scenarios in my Management Workshop confronts participants with a serious business problem for which their superior criticizes them for not having anticipated it. Participants working the scenario quickly come to see the importance of being able to set aside the personal criticism for the time being, while they attack fixing the problem. The best managers understand that it is always the most important things that must come first.
The second is a sense of humor. Freud considered humor a truly elegant human defense because it allows a negative event and the emotion associated with that event to coexist in our consciousness at the same time. I have long considered a sense of humor an essential ingredient of a good manager’s repertoire. The ability to occasionally laugh at oneself and our inevitable human shortcomings allows us to remember that one critical managerial responsibility is to take our work not ourselves seriously.
But no matter how mature we may fancy ourselves to be, all managers occasionally need some outside help to aid them in remembering that their ultimate responsibility is to get things right That is why the best managers surround themselves with a few colleagues who have the guts when necessary to tell them “to Knock it off” and “re-focus” when they lose sight of the real goal. One of my early bosses told me that one of my main jobs was “to keep him from doing really stupid things or making a fool of himself”. The best managers look for others to do the same for them.