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Do your leaders know the importance of saying sorry?

9th Dec 2013
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A recent survey by the Forum Corporation revealed how leaders worldwide are struggling to say sorry when they make mistakes. Graham Scrivener looks at the survey's eye-opening results.

Why does this matter? Because the same report [1] found a strong correlation between acknowledging mistakes at work and levels of trust in a team. A manager's willingness to acknowledge mistakes, apologise for them and encourage employees to acknowledge and learn from their own mistakes [2] were all found to impact on an employee's level of trust in their leader. And as previous research [3] has found, and the recent study reinforces, trust impacts employee engagement which affects business results.

The disconnect

According to past research [4], the way a manager behaves shapes 70% of the workplace environment; influencing levels of motivation, engagement and employee performance. Yet, the survey revealed that only 15% of employees in the UK and 19% of employees worldwide say they always or often get an apology from their boss whenever they make a mistake. 33% of UK staff claimed their boss rarely even acknowledge their mistakes let alone apologise.

But it seems leaders are unaware of their behaviour. In sharp contrast to the 15% of UK employees rarely hearing their boss say sorry, 87% of UK leaders claimed to often or always apologise and 64% believe they often or always acknowledge mistakes. Around 74% of leaders said they always use mistakes to help their team develop and improve whereas only 44% of employees agreed with this statement. Of those leaders that confessed to not owning up to workplace gaffes, 71% believed that asking forgiveness will make them look incompetent, while 29% are afraid of looking weak. Other reasons given by leaders worldwide for covering up mistakes included 'it's not necessary' and 'I'm the boss, why should I?'

But this attitude towards saying sorry coupled with the disconnect between what employees hear and see when mistakes are made, compared with how managers think they behave is clearly having an impact on trust in the workplace. 30% of UK staff surveyed say they trust managers less today, compared to past years. Both leaders and employers agreed that acknowledging personal mistakes is one of the key things leaders can do to inspire trust and trusting your boss today is very important for 93% of the employees surveyed.

Leaders that mishandle mistakes, communicate poorly when things go wrong, or are afraid that admitting mistakes will tarnish their image are missing opportunities to incorporate 'moments of trust' into their working day. Rather than try to bury a blunder or punish others for errors, which can damage trust and loyalty, great leaders can use mistakes to build trust and foster learning.

Trust drives results

Research shows that employees who have high levels of trust in their leaders tend to be more engaged and higher performers than those with less trust. For example, according to the survey employees with low trust were moderately engaged and those with high trust were highly engaged. Meanwhile, other studies have linked companies’ trust levels directly to their price/earnings ratios whilst others have shown double digit increases in productivity and profitability, plus reductions in turnover nearing 40% [5].

While trust has obvious business benefits, it is also in short supply and easily eroded. The UK-based CIPD reported recently that more than one in three employees (34%) had weak trust in their senior management [6]. Similarily, the Forum survey found that 30% of UK staff trust their managers less today, compared to previous years. In fact, trust in leaders appears relatively low throughout the world with the mean trust level at 3.1 on a five-point scale.

What erodes and inspires trust?

So what are leaders doing to inadvertently erode trust and what can they do to inspire trust and motivate employees to be high achievers? Forum asked employees to provide examples of leadership mistakes that had led to a loss of trust. Seven types of mistakes accounted for more than 80% of their responses, which were:

  • Being inconsistent

  • lying and lacking transparency

  • Lacking leadership skills

  • Taking undue credit or passing the blame

  • Taking behind employees' backs

  • Not 'walking the talk'

  • Poor communication and interpersonal skills

The same employees surveyed advised leaders to adopt the following skills to help engage their team and earn their trust:

  • Act with integrity - be open and transparent about mistakes and encourage the team to learn from their own errors.

  • Listen and demonstrate care - create an emotionally safe environment where staff feel listened to and valued,

  • 'Walk the talk' - deliver on your promises and do things you would equally expect of your team.

  • Trust and empower individuals with tasks and responsibilities.

  • Publicly encourage, recognise and reward success to motivate and energise individuals.

  • Provide clear and coherent messages and direction that aligns with the business strategy by being open and frequent in their communications.

  • Give constructive feedback and coaching - great leaders that earn their team's trust and commitment invest in the development and learning of each individual through regular informal and formal coaching, mentoring and leading.

So leaders that inspire and motivate their team need to learn not to be afraid of mistakes. Great leaders turn errors into opportunities to build trust and establishing trust of employees is critical for business success. Building trust pays off not only in the 'soft' value of a happier workplace, but also in the hard results that stem from the distinct competitive advantage gained by tapping an enormous source of underused human potential.

Graham Scrivener is managing director of Forum EMEA. To download a full copy of Forum's Global Leadership Pulse survey, click here.

[1] Forum's Global Leadership pulse survey, September 2013, which was a global sample of almost 1000 leaders and employees across EMEA, APAC and USA. Of the 948 respondents, 711 were leaders and 237 employees. 268 were based in EMEA of which 154 were in the UK. A full report of Forum's Global Leadership pulse survey with specific EMEA regional findings is available here.

[2] All correlations were greater than .50 and significant at p<.001. These are global results from Forum's Global Leadership pulse survey.

[3] Andy Atkins, Fast Company, August 7, 2012

[4] “Forum Climate Survey Validation Project,” The Forum Corporation, March 2008

[5] The State of the Global Workplace,” Gallup Consulting, 2010

[6] “Employee Outlook: Focus on Trust in Leaders,” Chartered Institute for Personnel Development, October 2013

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