Have you ever worked with or, worse still, worked for someone who could not or would not ever admit they made a mistake? They might downplay or cover up their mistakes. Or maybe they’re the type who deflects blame by falsely pointing fingers at others. Those folks are all nightmares in their own ways, but there is an even worse kind: people who are philosophically or fundamentally incapable of admitting a mistake as though they never make them. Too many bosses fall into this category, perhaps fearing to show any vulnerability. Let’s rush in and explore that logic.
The poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote that “To err is human.” Given the fact that humanity could be described as a species marred by imperfections while imperfectly pretending otherwise, it is axiomatic that humans make mistakes. Besides, who has the temerity to pick a fight with Alexander Pope?
It is also true, albeit difficult to acknowledge, that despite the general societal consensus to the contrary, bosses are people too. Sure, it can be hard to discern, but beneath that super-stern exterior, beyond that supercilious air, and in spite of all that supernaturally radiant malevolence persists a flesh-and-blood creature not all that different from the rest of the human species. And, as a former longtime boss, I can report that they put their socks on their hooves the same way people put them on their feet, so there’s that.
Now, if erring is human, and bosses are somewhat human, we can conclude that bosses err. If you are a boss and are shocked to learn this truth or insist it is incorrect, feel free to contact me for a consult.
Consider this fact: Not admitting an obvious truth is a fundamental error. It is just plain wrong to deny the undeniable. If you are standing on a railroad track and can see a freight train rushing toward you, closing your eyes tight and plugging your ears will not protect you from the coming impact. If you doubt me, try it out. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Well, since that bozo isn’t coming back, let’s just plunge ahead.
We already have established that we all make mistakes—an irrefutable fact—so one who pretends to never make mistakes is committing a fundamental error, that is, making a really big mistake. Simply put, to paraphrase Mr. Pope, we all muff it. Not admitting that reality both is itself an error and compounds the error.
Since we have also established that bosses are at least reasonable simulacra of humans, bosses who don’t admit they err must be committing a fundamental error.
If someone regularly commits obvious and avoidable mistakes in the workplace, we regard them as inept, bumbling, incapable, incompetent. So, the chronic commission of fundamental errors, the same massive errors over and over, is a marker of galactic incompetence.
We already know from Syllogism Two that bosses who don’t admit they err thereby commit a fundamental error.
Therefore, ergo, thus, hence such bosses are ipso facto, de facto, and in fact incompetent, indeed.
No one is perfect. We all mess up all the time, and failure—large and small—is just a part of our everyday experience. Some of us have a hard time admitting that fact. I know I do. When I was a boss, I came to the eventual conclusion that the more I tried to disown my failures, the worse they became and the less I learned from them. As part of my efforts to maximize transparency in the workplace, I began owning my mistakes freely in front of others. Sometimes doing so came across as true confession time, which was itself a mistake, so I had to constantly adjust to better calibrate my avowals. They needed to be relevant and illuminating—less “I locked my keys in my office again” or "I wore different colored shoes again" and more “I am struggling to get my point across to everyone and can use some help.” In doing so, I sought to learn from my own errors, inviting my employees and peers along for the journey. I wanted my mistakes to be collaborative training experiences. It’s a tough way to operate, and I never perfected it. (See what I did there?)
Yes, we all mess up, and we need to admit and embrace that irksome yet unavoidable fact. It’s okay. Bosses, like normal human beings, screw up, and they only amplify their errors when they don’t admit as much and don’t appreciate that it’s entirely natural that their employees also screw up. Bosses need to own their mistakes openly while simultaneously creating a space for their employees to safely acknowledge their own faults. The trust engendered by doing so will result in a spirit of support and betterment as boss and employee alike seek to learn from each other’s failures as they hasten to the next one.
By way of concluding, here is the complete line from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism:
(Gotta love Pope’s caesurae!)
Whether you are a boss or not, you will screw up. Accept that fact and forgive yourself so that you can learn from it. Others will screw up. Accept that fact and forgive them so that you can help them learn from it. You can even learn from others’ errors. We are all wrong a whole lot, and that is fine. It’s what we do with that reality that matters. To ignore, deny, or distort error is to magnify it. Instead, try this: err, admit, fix, repeat.
As Bob Dylan has sung,
Now another couplet from Pope’s Essay on Criticism will nicely round out this little essay:
Oh, those caesurae!
PS: I am sensitive to the fact that women are often under undo scrutiny, particularly as bosses, so that acknowledging mistakes or apologizing can be fraught. The error denial I am referring to here, though, is not a survival strategy for a sexist world but is more in reference to the near-pathological inability to admit the truth by both men and women, which is often accompanied by blaming and bullying.
I taught college composition for decades and long preached that clarity trumps everything—grammar, mechanics, style, everything. If you strive first to be understood, you need to spit out your gum and embrace clarity. Once you do that, all the other elements of communication tend to fall in line in support of the goal of making yourself understood.
This concept is particularly important to grasp when attempting to communicate in the workplace, which can be a dicey affair on the best day. Therefore, it behooves the good boss to spit out the gum and to communicate as clearly as possible. And what could be clearer than transparency?
Unless your work environment demands security clearances or requires knowledge of super-secret recipes, transparency in leadership is a vital tool for building a healthy workplace. But you may be thinking, transparency sure can be mighty hard. After all, if you aren’t transparent enough, all folks see are the flecks of dirt, the smudges, and the thin film of filth that coats the surface. If you are too transparent, why then you are liable to have a bird fly right into you. What is a boss to do?
The simple fact of the matter is that every leadership action has consequences, and those consequences are felt by employees and clients even when the original action had been concealed. In other words, sooner or later, in one way or another, transparent or not, the truth will usually out. Better to be in front of it rather than constantly trailing behind.
ON BEING TRANSPARENT, NOT INVISIBLE
As counterintuitive as it may seem, transparency is the art of visibility. Transparency has to do with candor and openness, and a transparent leader will habitually seek to keep employees up-to-date and aware of circumstances and how they inform decision making. Truly transparent leaders do not distinguish between good and bad news, major or minor facts, or anything in between when sharing information. As with writing or any form of communication, the goal is to be apparent, easy to read, visible.
A transparent boss leads with forthright candor on the assumption that most professionals would prefer the freedom of knowing even bad news over blissful ignorance. Furthermore, an informed employee is an empowered employee, and the price of that empowerment is accountability, which is an easy bargain. In my experience with overseeing transparent and accountable workplaces, true professionals really do want to deliver more while being held to higher standards.
Transparent leaders stand out for their straight-forward honesty, not wanting to conceal either news or themselves from colleagues and employees. Practicing such transparency reduces the element of surprise and its disruptive potential. It also signals to employees that they are valued and trusted enough to share in news. Finally, it helps to motivate employees because an informed employee will have a better sense of workplace goals and will be able to enjoy more autonomy.
The transparent leader will face some challenges, the first being the most obvious. True transparency will make you more susceptible to criticism and attacks—it’s the cost of honesty. Some boors imagine that vulnerability in a leader is a sign of weakness, that to be vulnerable is to be meek and ineffectual, but the opposite is true. To purposely render oneself vulnerable requires courage, mettle, and resilience and and will increase inner strength. By contrast, in my experience leaders who practice opacity often act as though they have a license to bully even as they cower behind bureaucratic hierarchies and sycophantic underlings. Certainly, willful opacity is the last refuge of cowards.
Another, far thornier challenge is that the transparent leader can never be transparent enough. In other words, no matter how open and candid you attempt to be, no matter how forthrightly you hold yourself, there will always be something you hold back. Perhaps you withhold something that is not fit for general consumption, such as a sensitive personnel action. More often though, it is just something you overlooked or just plain forgot because you thought it trivial or figured it was already known. Worse still, the more transparent you attempt to be, the likelier someone will call you out for a matter you did not reveal. That said, I find that within a culture of forthright candor, explaining that certain information is sensitive or simply acknowledging an honest oversight will mollify most detractors, at least the reasonable ones, and the unreasonable ones will likely remain miserable no matter what you do.
On the other hand, if you claim to be transparent but purposely withhold non-sensitive information or cover up oversights, your employees will simply mistrust you. You would be better off choosing opacity over outright deception although the distinction tends to blur over time.
Leaders who default to forthright candor and openness will likely find their workplaces less aggrieved and more productive, particularly if they also seek to develop a culture of “yes.” In addition, they will earn political capital and increase their mettle and will find themselves better able to face challenges alongside their employees rather than in opposition to them.
So, spit out your gum and communicate clearly and openly by embracing a philosophy of forthright candor and maximum transparency as you develop a culture of “yes.” Empowering your people this way will free you from the burden of constant guardedness and will transform your workplace for the better.
You have no doubt heard the hoary story of the blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. Due to their limited powers of perception, the men, touching different parts of the elephant, each reach radically different conclusions about the nature of this creature. (I cite this tale with apologies to the visually impaired, who are generally no less nor more insightful than the visually encumbered.)
The point though is that we primarily take in only what we discern and have a limited capacity to project beyond that. Plato makes a similar case in his Allegory of the Cave in which humans can see only shadows of reality but not reality itself. We primarily know only what we take in, and it can be hard to project into the unknown with any accuracy. We too often want to believe that what we see is all there is to get.
This is the stuff of science and philosophy and art. Think of all the novels and movies that focus on the limits of perception. If you have seen any of The Matrix franchise, you know what I mean. In the original movie and its sequels and spinoffs, humanity is trapped in a computer simulation that synthesizes daily existence. Only those few who have been freed can perceive this mass enslavement and experience the grit and grime of really real reality.
In the Matrix universe, if you are offered a choice of two pills, select the red one, and you will be freed.
In fact, adherents to Qanon and other such conspiracy theories refer to understanding their version of the truth as “red-pilling.” The implication, of course, is that most of us are not aware of the conspiratorial truth behind what we perceive and that the truly true truth is accessible only through viewing certain YouTube videos, participating in rightwing chat rooms, and listening to the My Pillow guy. You just have to be open to it.
(I am always struck, by the way, at the number of conspiracy theories that closely track the plots, themes, and imagery of movies. Many of these conspiracy theories surmise and depend on the existence of technologies that only exist in science fiction, such as mind-controlling microchips.)
The fact remains, though, that the truth is not fully accessible no matter how many dietary supplements you purchase from InfoWars. Sure, art and philosophy and religion and science lay claim to some knowledge of truth or of the Truth, but none of these noble pursuits has an absolute handle on what is real. And only one of them ever claims otherwise. Even in The Matrix, taking the red pill may expose the unreality of one type of perception, but it also launches you into a whole other reality with its own limits of perception (see Plato).
My point is that it is hard to grasp the truth. Part of the problem is the limitation of our brains. Truth is big, bigger than our capacity to grasp. But more significantly, we are hampered by the limits of our perception.
Think of walking down a sidewalk. Absent a camera or well-placed mirror, we cannot see around the corner of that brick building up ahead. For all we know, that turn in the sidewalk does not resolve into existence until the moment we reach it. Perhaps, solipsists may speculate, reality does not occur until the instant you perceive it. You see a tabletop, but its underside is nonexistent unless you run your hand there. I think I saw something like this on the Twilight Zone.
Silly stuff, but it is how we purport to know. If there is a tabletop, I surmise from experience that there must be an underside. I may have an image of it in my mind or a memory if I have seen it, but the current state of its current existence is perfectly irrelevant to my experience of eating my meal properly from the top side.
Our brains may not be large enough to grasp the totality of reality, but they are large enough to fill in the gaps. For instance, scientists tell us that sight is not one solid and continuous view of an image but serial images that our brain stitches together into a stable whole, and of course our eyes see everything upside down. It is our brain that compensates by flipping the image.
This one benefit is enough for me to declare that I am very pro-brain.
But what if our brain goes too far? What if, in compensating for the limits of perception, we fill in the gaps by imagining fictions? Frankly, we do this all the time. We worry about a future we cannot foresee, the future being the most unknowable unknown. We see phantoms when none exists. In dealing with others, we ascribe intention when we have no way to be sure. Speculation is useful. It can prepare us and protect us, but it can also deceive and mislead us.
This is where all those conspiracy theories come from. They overcompensate for our lack of knowing. There is something comforting in thinking that there is an order to what seems chaotic and out of control even when that order is imposed by a malevolent force. Such order gives us something to act for or against. Chaos is harder.
One of my favorite Bob Dylan quotes is not from a song but is from a long poem he wrote as album liner notes:
i accept chaos, I am not sure whether it accepts me.
By this he means, I think, that he acknowledges the general chaotic nature of the universe and our inability to perceive it, but he, as an artist, still will try to make sense of it. That is what artists do. That is what thinkers do. That is what everyone does to varying degrees and with whatever success. And that is what I am doing here.
We cannot fully understand the truth. We cannot fully grasp the chaos of the universe. We try, every moment just about, to understand, grasp, and even control it, though. Sometimes we are just plain wrong. Too often we overcompensate, missing the mark altogether because we want to believe something to be true even in the face of its inherent untruth.
All we are left with is the process. Not truth or the Truth, but the process of attempting to know and to understand. It is those very times when we are most sure we are right that it is an excellent idea to assume we are wrong. To check and double check so that we do not get sucked into some well-ordered cycle of self-replicating and self-promoting rerendering or rationalizing of the chaos.
That, there, is where madness lies, not in being caught up in chaos but in not accepting the chaos before trying to find sense in it.
After I had already drafted this essay, the excellent Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam covered some overlapping ground in an episode entitled “Useful Delusions.”
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It is not enough to do good. Let me repeat that. Doing good is not enough. Many people do some good in this world, by which I mean achieve some positive outcome, but too often we achieve that outcome by doing bad, which is not good enough.
Yes, this is a piece about how the ends almost never justify the means spiced up with a dash of the Golden Rule.
To start, I will readily concede that sometimes the ends may indeed justify the means. But rarely. If we agree that killing people is bad, we may still conclude that killing a bad person before they can harm an innocent is okay. Great. That is a pretty exotic scenario, though. More commonly, you may have experiences where you determine that being mean or loud or harsh or blunt or rude or even flagrantly dishonest will achieve your positive end, but doing so begs key questions: Is the choice to behave badly worth it? Is it the only or even the best option for achieving that good end?
And don’t rationalize. It is all too easy for us humans to rationalize doing bad when the outcome is positive even though we have made no exertion of integrity.
After all, while much good in this world has come from those who seek laudable goals such as freedom, truth, virtue, progress, and even love, how many atrocities have been committed in the pursuit of freedom, truth, virtue, progress, and even love?
A Handy Three-Part Test
To help us along, here is a three-part test for determining just when the ends justify the means. All three standards must be met in order to pass the test.
First, is the outcome truly good?
Second, does the good of the outcome completely offset the bad of the means, including foreseeable repercussions?
Third, if the outcome both is truly good and absolutely offsets any bad associated with the means, can you be sure that there was no other reasonable way of achieving your purpose?
Failing to meet any one of these three admittedly lofty bars is enough to sink the integrity of the whole project and you must conclude that the ends do not justify the means.
These sorts of dilemmas come up all the time for mission-driven organizations. Assuming that your mission is truly good (the first test), what negative or harmful means are allowable for you to achieve that good? Hopefully none, but for some reason that conclusion seems perpetually out of reach for so many decision-makers and organizations.
As I have mentioned numerous times, I spent decades in higher education as a faculty member and as an academic administrator. Every institution of higher education, no matter its type or size, is exceedingly complex and has a tremendous impact on its students, its staff, their families, and the community. Therefore, the brand of moral dilemma I sketched comes up all the time. In my experience, though, rarely is that three-part test applied in any rigorous or honest way. I certainly failed to apply it many times myself in decisions both large and small. To make matters worse, the complexity of many scenarios sometimes can obscure the ramifications.
From that experience I learned that it is all too easy to convince oneself that because the overall mission of the institution is good, the actions of the institution in pursuit of that mission must also be good. Sadly, that is infrequently the case. I have seen administrators and faculty rationalize away all sorts of egregious behavior by assuming that since the first test is met (that the outcome is truly good), the other two tests may be waived.
Some Handy Rules of Thumb
Here is a rule of thumb for visionary, beneficent, and mission-driven organizations to apply to help avoid such pitfalls:
Not following this rule is tantamount to instant and de facto failure.
If your mission is to educate students to be successful in life while upholding ethical and professional standards (a common intention in university mission statements), then do so throughout the institution. Treat students, faculty, and staff they way you expect your graduates to treat others. This is golden-rule-level stuff here as well as plain good educational modeling.
The same is true for any mission-driven organization. Consider your mission. Ask yourself, what does it mean? What does it really mean? What are its implications? What assumptions does it make about ethics and behavior? Does your organization live up to those standards every day and in everything? Do you?
Of course not. We all screw up. But do you habitually correct course when you are astray and then learn from your errors, or do you just thinkingly or unthinkingly rationalize flaws away, thus compounding or repeating them?
If your organization strives to achieve some standard of human decency for your clients or society, a broad goal of many nonprofits whatever the specifics, do you apply that same standard to how you treat your workforce? Do you tolerate and rationalize low pay or a stringent work culture because you think the good you do for clients offsets it (test 2)? Is there another way (test 3)? And, please, never assume the answer is no because of past practice, culture, or (shudder) tradition.
I offer another rule of thumb:
None of what I have written here is simply to apply.
The ends do not justify the means except when they do, which is not very often yet does happen although so infrequently that you probably should doubt yourself when it does but not every time, so it is best to just not look for it.
As a public service, I offer here an algorithmic take on my three-part test:
1. Is the end truly good?
2. Does the good of the end offset or overmatch the harm of the means?
3. Is there any other way to minimize harm while still achieving the end?
Applying this test to every decision that involves a moral or ethical dimension (and don’t they all?) sounds like a lot, but it quickly can become a habit. Two more rules of thumb may help:
It is great to do good. Please, keep doing good, but be very sure you are doing good the right way. Otherwise, what is the point?
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In my last post, I described an alternative conception of US higher education that supplants the current thinking of the student-as-customer and the problems it engenders. I proposed that we should abandon that model for one that promotes the individual student as a consumer with society as a whole being the customer. This new paradigm merges the best of the traditional view of higher education as a meritocracy to improve society and the trending view of higher education as merely a private benefit for student careers. It also identifies the college mission as the product each institution must deliver to society.
I further suggested that this new paradigm can offer insights into most mission-driven organizational systems.
In a Mission-Driven Organization, Your MISSION Is Your PRODUCT
This one should be pretty apparent. Your mission is a purpose as viewed through the lens of your organization’s values. It is what you are trying to produce or to deliver on. It keeps you centered and on track and, deployed wisely, it can be a strong incentive for both staff and leadership.
If you were a carmaker, your product would presumably be cars. But in that for-profit world, where the main value is to make money by making cars, if the same company could make money by doing something else, such as floating car loans or manufacturing buggy whips, then those would be viable options for production and profit too.
If “product” is too concrete, think of your mission then as a process or service. Whatever the analogy, your mission is both the purpose and the overarching desired outcome of your organization.
In the mission-driven and nonprofit world, the focus should largely be on the mission. If your mission is to support developmentally disabled kids, then that is what you do. You cannot get sidetracked by a sudden impulse to start a food bank no matter how altruistic and beneficial doing so may be—at least not without considerably altering the scope of your mission and your organizational structure.
In a Mission-Driven Organization, Your CLIENTS Are Your CONSUMERS
Just as students are a college’s principal consumers, your clients, the people and organizations you directly provide services to and/or support, are your consumers, not your customers.
So what is the difference? In the for-profit world, a customer is an individual who buys or receives a product or service; in the case of nonprofits, this would be whatever good or service fulfills the mission. With for-profits, the consumer is an individual who directly uses the product and is often one-and-the-same with the customer who makes the purchase. It is similar for nonprofits although the consumer and customer are more often separate. In many cases, the mission itself is to supply some good and/or service to clients who are not paying for that service, at least not at market value. Consequently, they consume (literally or figuratively) the goods and/or service you provide.
For instance, if the mission of your organization is to develop and provide studio space to up-and-coming artists, those artists become the consumers of whatever space and assistance you offer. This holds true even if you charge a reduced or at-cost rent. If they were clients in a purely transactional relationship in which you offer the space at an undiscounted or unsubsidized market rate, you would just be a commercial realtor. Another example: If your mission is to support a particular political cause by producing studies in line with your position, those who read and apply those studies are your consumers.
In a Mission-Driven Organization, SOCIETY Is Your CUSTOMER
At its simplest, the customer is that individual who pays you to deliver your product. For nonprofits and mission-driven organizations, this would be society itself, which, one way or another, is paying you to fulfill your mission. The payment could be through direct donations, foundation grants, government entities, or some other source. The relationship here is evidently transactional, but, just as with higher education, the idea is that your mission (product) is transformational.
Mission-driven organizations presumably serve a higher cause by adding value to society. In some cases the service to clients will directly benefit society, such as supporting economic development or promoting beautification or conserving land. In such cases, the consumer and the customer overlap or blend. Consider, if your nonprofit mission is to promote a political point of view, the very act of doing so would, in accord with your convictions, advance society. Your political opponents, though, may differ on that assumption.
More frequently, the service to society is indirect or cumulative, such as educating or feeding those in need or expanding the reach of the arts or providing religious instruction. If you are a church, your direct reach only extends as far as your congregation or the recipients of your charity, but presumably you intend the value to your individual constituents will extend through them to improve society in part or whole.
Of course, the societal improvements envisioned would be peculiar to each organization and its mission, and such improvement is in the eye of the beholder.
Transformation over Transaction?
As in my example from higher ed in Part 1, these distinctions matter. When in the past the focus of US higher ed was heavily on the mission as a transcendental aspiration and on the claim that higher ed was primarily a meritocracy that inherently benefitted society, students tended to get lost in the sauce. When the paradigm shifted to the student-as-customer model, the focus on societal benefit faded, and the student-university relationship became much too transactional. A balanced approach, with the college mission as product, society as customer, and the student as consumer, eliminates false dichotomies and recalibrates the relationship of higher ed to its product, customer, and consumer.
This healthy model can inform all mission-driven organizations albeit with two obvious caveats:
Nonetheless, considering your mission-driven organization in these terms can help you grasp its overall purpose while reconceptualizing and balancing the relations among its functions. Shifting emphasis to one area does not necessarily mean shifting focus away from another so long as their interdependence is understood. Assuring that the mission (product) is paramount does not warrant neglecting clients (consumers) or the overriding contribution of your organization to society (customer). Nor does it mean that focusing on the mission overrides organizational concerns, such as treating staff with the same dignity you seek for your clients. Doing good starts at home.
The relationship I describe deemphasizes the transactional and, when properly appreciated and calibrated, can guide your organization to be appropriately and powerfully transformational.
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Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.