Tell the Truth: Do you ‘Own Up’ When you make a Mistake?

Don't be afraid to tell the truth

Don’t be afraid to tell the truth

Just before Christmas I borrowed Linda’s car to pick up stuff from the supermarket (enough food for 37 families to withstand a Nuclear Holocaust).  On the way out, I managed to reverse her car into a wall. While there was a fair bit of damage – it wasn’t easy to spot this. So, I had this brilliant idea: slip the car back in our driveway and say absolutely nothing. Linda would assume that she’d caused the damage or that someone had crashed into her and hadn’t reported this. If I really wanted to be nasty, I could eventually ‘spot’ the damage and even give her a hard time about careless driving.  Like Nick Leeson in Bearings Bank, I was going to ‘trade my way out’ of this problem and I would eventually be in the clear! As you are now reading about this incident, you can safely assume that goodness prevailed and I fessed up. When you apologise for a mistake and move on, you keep your integrity.

Failure Wall: I recently came across an organization equivalent to this. Here’s how Jeff Seibel (CEO of Dun & Bradstreet) describes the idea…

“A little over two years ago, my assistant and I snuck into the office after hours and painted quotes of famous people’s thoughts about failure, from Winston Churchill (“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”) to Sofia Loren (“Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life”). After my assistant left, I took a Sharpie marker and wrote some of my most humbling failures on the wall. The wall was met with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, both by employees and by the press who quickly caught wind of it. Over time, employees, partners, even family members came by to add their remarks until the wall was littered with failures. It was received favorably by the LA Times where they even started their own online Failure Wall; perhaps not quite so favorably on HuffPost Live where some people were more wary of the idea. Despite mixed reviews, the Failure Wall idea persevered. Here’s what we have learned, 2 years in:

1. Culture change starts small: At first, there was only one group of failures written on the wall: mine. It took a couple of days before someone else picked up a marker. After a half dozen brave souls had written down failures, they started coming in faster… the growth was exponential rather than linear. As employees began to feel safe in admitting mistakes, the wall filled up. Now the wall is completely covered, and space becomes available only when an old failure fades away. Which brings me to #2…

2. Old failures disappear: I may need to speak to customer service at Sharpie, because it turns out that the word “permanent” is misleading. We’ve noticed that writing on the wall tends to last a few months before it starts to fade, and then by about 9 months it has completely disappeared, making space for the next round. This physical property of the Failure Wall mimics how failure works in the mind: as long as you acknowledge failure, it slips away both in your own memory and in the memories of those around you. Unacknowledged, it tends to fester. Getting it out is the only way to go.

3. Failure is, really, no big deal: For the first few weeks, employees would diligently check the failure wall for new entries each morning while sipping their coffee. Now, only new employees or visitors to the office spend any significant time reading. For the rest of us, it’s just part of the scenery. Failures happen, we write them down, they fade away. You chuckle at some of the more humorous ones (“I thought it was spelled ‘fale’“), and maybe your jaw drops at some of the more serious ones (“Waited months for someone to tell me what to do instead of taking the initiative…”). But ultimately, it’s just not a big deal. Employees have fessed up to mistakes that cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, and no one has gotten in trouble. As a CEO, I know it’s not the failure wall mistakes that I should be concerned about, even if they are costly. If it’s on the failure wall, the writer has acknowledged it, learned from it, and is unlikely to repeat it. The idea of failure is often the elephant in the room that no one wants to mention. The Failure Wall has given us a way to talk about failure without stigmatizing it. When someone brings up a risky proposition in a meeting, inevitably someone quips that it “could end up on the failure wall.” Thus acknowledged, it frees us to have a frank discussion and calculate the risk.

Acknowledging and accepting failure is a fundamental part of how businesses operate. In our case, it has ironically enabled our ability to grow and innovate quickly. I’m proud to say we have a culture that accepts, embraces, and occasionally chuckles at failure. While my team and I have written many failures on the wall, the Wall itself is one of our favorite successes”.

Bottom Line:  How about experimenting with this Failure Wall (or something similar)  in your organization and see what happens?  Would you be brave enough to give it a go?


Tell the Truth

PS Lighter Note: Have a look at the following video clip about a voice-activated elevator in Scotland! Thanks to Larry Mc Givern for this one.

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organisation development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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