Influence 2.0: Don’t Just Celebrate Mistakes, Celebrate Accountability

by Dan Heffernan

May 13th, 2013

Some question whether you should really celebrate failure.  If you don’t, you’re missing an opportunity to engage your people and improve results.  What does “engage your people” mean though, and how do you do it?

Dale Carnegie’s new research with MSW shows that only 29% of employees are engaged at work.  Like all employees, they decide when to give their employer discretionary energy and commitment, but this decision is largely based upon whether their immediate manager cares about them.  So how can celebrating failure improve employee engagement and accountability?  Here’s one story to illustrate the point.

Back in the late 1990s, I started up a new professional services division of a demanding, successful outsourcing firm.  I had hired a popular keynote speaker at a premium price to present to clients and prospects and promote the division.  The plan was to offset some of the speaker fees with local ticket sales.

With less than a week until the event, I presented a bleak update at a cross-functional operations review.  There would be very few tickets sold, mostly because of my ill-conceived marketing plans.  I was asked to report to the office of the new Chief Operating Officer at 8:00 AM the following morning.

After little sleep the night before, that morning I met Ron Knight, who had just left Xerox to join the company.  While at Xerox, he had led one of their key businesses to winning a Malcolm Baldridge Award, so his reputation preceded him.

He immediately put me at ease, told me stories about mistakes he had made, and described his philosophy of leadership: “It’s okay to make mistakes, but not okay to repeat them.”  He complimented me, told me it was clear I was committed to the success of the event and division regardless of the outcome of this event.  I felt as much inspiration as relief.

As you might expect from a story like this, he guided me to make the best of the event.  In the end the mistake was costly but paid for—the division had the highest operating profit of any in the company.

So how does this relate to accountability?  He said something else that morning: “It tells you just as much when someone doesn’t show up at a time like this as when they do.”  I asked him what he meant by that.  “Don’t you remember you were not the only one invited here for this debrief this morning?”  I was so focused on how to fix the problem, I never noticed.  Two others from marketing and operations were in the cross-functional briefing, and the CEO had requested everyone involved join Ron that morning.  No one else showed.  Who is owning their mistakes in your world?  Are you inspiring them to show up and be accountable?

Learn how you can influence choices and help your team be accountable – not by dictating, but by inspiring!

Coaching for Improved Performance (1 session workshop) begins May 30.

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