Mistakes come with the job of management. You make a lot of them and most are minor, easily correctable, acknowledged without much embarrassment, and do little harm to you, your subordinates, or the organization. But there are a few mistakes that managers can make that are in another league, or zip code as I like to say. I call them the Cardinal Sins of management. These mistakes can, and usually do, have long-lasting consequences, undermine the respect your subordinates, colleagues, and superiors have for you, and ultimately will seriously undermine your effectiveness as a manager.
The difficulty with these mistakes is that I believe there is an underlying psychological motivation driving certain individuals to make them habitually, thus rendering their patterned use difficult to alter. But the best managers are certainly assiduous in their effort to avoid them. In this and my next four articles, I will discuss these Cardinal Sins of management one at a time and what I believe are their long-term consequence.
The first of these Cardinal Sins is a fundamental determination to pass the blame for their personal mistakes on to someone else. These are the managers who not only shirk responsibility for their own acts but who also fail to understand that being a manager, makes them the “Captain of the ship” and thereby responsible and accountable for everything that happens beneath their authority.
For these managers there are always mitigating circumstances that allow them — by their own logic — to pass the buck for something that they did, on to someone else. Because doing this is so blatantly obvious to everybody around, you can easily see how it impacts the respect and esteem in which they are held. The fact that a manager may not have known about a mistake as it was happening, is irrelevant to subordinates who expect the boss to assume his or her appropriate level of accountability.
Of course, as often happens, it is unpleasant when a superior calls you out for a mistake a subordinate has made and of which you were oblivious until that very moment. But the best managers accept that as part of the job, a function of being accountable. If necessary, they might just consider telling their boss: “hey, how about I come to your office later for a flogging after I have taken the steps needed to find out what happened and fix whatever needs fixing”.
Managers who are quick to blame others for things generate a great deal of irritation and anger among subordinates for what is invariably seen as a character deficiency and immaturity. Blame avoidance also has a deadening effect on creativity and risk taking because these activities inevitably lead to errors and mistakes. Knowing that the boss will seek to distance her or himself from anything that goes wrong, subordinates will generally choose not to take the chance.
But perhaps most damaging of all, every manager must at times be a leader; someone who asks subordinates to venture into uncharted waters, try new things, adapt to changes they may not wish to embrace, and to take risks. For subordinates to follow such leadership they must respect and trust their boss as someone they can count on to join them in facing an uncertain future. Consequently, bosses who simply can not help but blame others for things that go awry gradually mortgage their ability to lead.
These managers likewise fail to impress the majority of their superiors who will come to see this habit of rejecting blame as a serious flaw, undermining their potential for more senior managerial responsibility. While this Cardinal Sin alone may not derail a managerial career, it is rarely ignored in making important management postings.
Do not let this happen to you, no matter how painful it is occasionally to accept blame for something of which you were clearly the author, or for which you are clearly responsible.