Wagging the Finger at Finger Waggers

Wag
Bill Treasurer

I have a friend who always seems to wag his finger, metaphorically, in people’s faces. When you tell him about some mistake you made, or admit to some human failing, instead of empathizing, he’ll say things like, “You shouldn’t have done that” and, more self-righteously, “What I would have done is…”

He reminds me of Gladys Kravitz, the overbearing neighbor on Bewitched, the television situation comedy from the 1960s. Mrs. Kravitz is forever peeking through her neighbor, Samantha Stevens’, window in search of proof that Stevens is up to no good. Her aim is to catch Stevens doing wrong. My friend is like that.

Management guru (and fellow Switch and Shifter) Ken Blanchard says that effective leaders should focus on catching people doing things right, instead of catching them doing things wrong.

I agree. It makes more sense to reinforce positive behavior than punish errant behavior.

Still, some leaders see their power as derived from their ability to level consequences. When a mistake is made, they rub the mistake-maker’s nose in the mistake, as if the person were a badly behaved dog in need of punishment. It’s as if they take pleasure in the role of punisher, reveling in rendering harsh judgments. “You got what you deserved” they wag.

More-evolved leaders view mistakes as powerful learning opportunities. Mistakes, especially when they are forward-falling, often key the business onto innovative insights. Mistakes are often the best evidence that a person is stretching, experimenting, innovating…and more importantly, not stagnating. While stupid or habitual mistakes do need to be addressed soberly by the leader, punishing people in a heavy-handed way just causes embarrassment and resentment on the part of the person being led.

Some leaders see their power as derived from their ability to level consequences. They rub the mistake-maker’s nose in the mistake, as if the person were a badly behaved dog in need of punishment.

The leader should value changed behavior more than subjugation (which is what the leader really wants when they are overly focused on punishment).

How do you handle it when an employee loses a client, gets the data wrong, comes in over budget, or drops the ball in some other way? Do you explode? Do you mentally write the person off for good and hold the mistake against them forever more? Do you stew with resentment? What kind of example are you setting for others by the way you handle (or mishandle) mistakes?

Effective leaders should focus on catching people doing things right, instead of catching them doing things wrong.

While no leader should tolerate habitual mistakes, all leaders should expect some mistakes … even from themselves. Mistakes, small and big, often provide the best learning opportunities. The learning vanishes, however, if the punishment far outweighs the mistake.

The next time someone you are leading makes a mistake, ask this question: What would Mrs. Kravitz do?

Then do the opposite.

Bill Treasurer is the author of Leaders Open Doors, which focuses on how leaders create growth through opportunity. Bill is also the author of Courage Goes to Work, an international bestselling book that introduces the concept of courage-building. He is also the author of Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, an off-the-shelf training toolkit that organizations can use to build workplace courage. Bill has led courage-building workshops for, among others, NASA, Accenture, CNN, PNC Bank, SPANX, Hugo Boss, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. To inquire about having Bill work with your organization, contact info@giantleapconsulting.com.

  • Bill, I love it! When my wife was a new manager of a company in which the founders were still quite active, she always asked herself this question when she didn’t know what she should do: “What would the owner do?” It always steered her right.

    Meanwhile, my first boss was a dynamic heretic in an entirely different line of work. One of his favorite lines: “Want to succeed in business? Find out what everyone else is doing, and do the opposite!”

    I think there’s a lot to both sides of that advice. Do what a few special leaders in your life (or even that you’ve studied from afar) would do. Do the opposite of what most people would do.

    And if you know a Mrs. Kravitz of your own? Definitely do the opposite of what she would do!!

  • “While no leader should tolerate habitual mistakes, all leaders should expect some mistakes … even from themselves.”

    This is certainly true, also leaders should remember that we are all human beings and every human being makes mistakes from time to time. What is really important is to aim to never do the same mistake twice.

    Being a leader is one thing, being simply a boss is another.

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