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Hey Management Guy! Should the Boss Ever Admit to Being Wrong?

April 17, 2009
Related Topics: Ethics

This is a (relatively) new feature here at the Business of Management blog: Hey Management Guy! If you have a question about a workforce management practice (stupid or otherwise), just post it at the bottom of this blog item or e-mail it here to me at I’ll pick out the best queries and answer them here each month.

Hey, Management Guy! Is it ever good for a high-level executive (maybe even the Big Boss) to admit to being wrong? I think it’s a good idea because it shows people that the boss is human and fallible just like everyone else. But then again, I can’t remember any executives actually doing it.  What do you think?

-- Chili from Chicago

A few years ago, The Management Guy worked for a crazy entrepreneur who made tons of insane, shortsighted decisions. He was wrong about something just about every hour of the day, every day of the week, but he never, ever would admit any culpability for his terrible judgment. He never took responsibility for anything, although he was fond of offering a faux apology of sorts when something went really bad. When that happened, he would chalk it up to “trusting that (Employee X) was capable of stepping up to the challenge.”

Of course, this is hardly taking the blame--it’s simply blaming the employee, again, in a backhanded way, sort of like a job candidate saying in an interview that their greatest weakness is working too hard. It’s rhetorical BS, pure and simple.

The Management Guy has worked for lots managers, executives and Big Bosses over the years, and he can count on one hand the number of times any of them truly admitted they were wrong. That’s why so many fall back on rhetorical devices that sound like they are taking blame when in fact they are simply passing the blame buck to somebody else. They do that because they believe that taking blame makes them look weak and unleaderly.

This is nonsense, of course. It is really just ego and vanity run amok, but you see it all the time. For example, here’s what Tribune CEO Sam Zell said this week about his horribly bad and shortsighted decision to buy the parent company of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times back in 2007--a decision that has now landed the company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as thousands of Tribune employees have lost their jobs.

Yes, Zell told Bloomberg Television that his heavily leveraged 2007 acquisition of Tribune was “a mistake,” but only because he did not anticipate the steep decline in the newspaper business. “By definition, if you bought something and it’s now worth a great deal less, you made a mistake, and I’m more than willing to say I made a mistake,” Zell said. “I was too optimistic in terms of the newspaper’s ability to preserve its position.”

This is classic rhetorical BS. Zell is hardly taking responsibility or blame for anything, except being too optimistic. He’s hardly admitting he’s fallible here. And it’s a revisionist version of the facts to boot, because there was a lot written at the time, or shortly thereafter, about the poor state of the company Zell was buying and the huge amount of debt he was taking on to do it.

Yes, Zell is a horrible manager and was wildly optimistic when he made a bad deal to buy a business he knew virtually nothing about, but he won’t ever cop to that. He thinks, like too many other bad managers, that there’s no upside in accepting blame or apologizing--that would take character and backbone and a strong sense of right and wrong. And as much as many business executives want to claim they have those qualities, there’s a whole lot of them who don’t have any idea what they really mean.

--The Management Guy

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