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Guest Columnist

December 1, 2002

The Blame Game

by Barry Maher

When you fail, when you make a mistake, keep your head--unless you can think of a lot of situations that were actually improved by panic. And, own up to your mistake--to yourself and to any others involved. Anyone who doesn't realize that's the best course of action hasn't been paying much attention to politics for the last 40 years.  The Bay of Pigs was a massive fiasco.  Privately, Kennedy was convinced he'd been deceived by the CIA. But publicly, he immediately took full responsibility. He was president, so it certainly was his responsibility. He looked more presidential, not less for accepting that. Contrast his response with Nixon trying to pin the Watergate cover-up on one subordinate after another, Bush the father insisting he was out of the Iran/Contra loop no matter how many meetings he might have attended, and Clinton's tortured exercises in microscopic hair splitting.

Tip: When in doubt, tell the truth.

If you can't admit your mistakes to yourself, you're never going to learn from them, and you're going to keep repeating them. When you admit mistakes to others who might be affected, you're showing confidence. It's astonishing how well the phrase, "Boy, I screwed that up, let me take care of it," works--if you don't have to use it too often.

When Alfred P. Sloan ran General Motors, he used to say that a manager who is right half the time is doing very well indeed. Managers, co-workers, employees, salespeople, customer service reps, or anyone else for that matter who pretends to be right all the time is simply revealing his insecurity.  He's seldom fooling anyone anyway.

Taking responsibility can be difficult. It's not just politicians who have an easier time saying, "Mistakes were made," than "I made a mistake." As if the mistakes were some sort of unavoidable act of nature.

A corporation that had recently become a Wall Street darling had to announce that they'd miscalculated their earnings for the previous quarter. The stock price plummeted. The next day I was called in for a little damage control.  The volatile chief financial officer was hardly the most popular person in the company, and I walked into his outer office just in time to catch his matronly secretary facing out the window with her sweater pulled up around her shoulders. At first, I thought she was flashing her fellow workers as they arrived in the employee parking lot below. Then she turned toward me in surprise. Before she could pull the sweater back down, I caught a quick glimpse of the tee shirt she was wearing underneath. It read: "Mistakes have been made. Others will be blamed."

A few minutes later, I discovered that she'd done an excellent job of anticipating her boss' strategy. As Fran Liebowitz said, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you lay the blame." But his failure to accept the blame was the main reason he later lost his job.

Still, it's certainly not necessary to admit your mistakes to anyone who isn't affected by them. Many of the mistakes we make are not really anybody else's business. Even so, bringing them up can be useful. Years ago, when I was selling advertising I used to make it a point to find a problem in the spec ad I'd had created for the customer, the ad I was trying to sell to him.  That way, I got him involved in coming up with a solution. And the very lack of perfection made my enthusiasm for the rest of the ad more believable. The fact that I'd pointed out the flaw added to my credibility and my expertise, demonstrated my attention to detail and showed that I was still working to improve the ad.

Hall of Fame football coach Bear Bryant used to remark that to hold a team together, "There's just three things I'd ever say:

If anything goes bad, I did it.

If anything goes semi-good, then we did it.

If anything goes real good, then you did it.

That's all it takes to get people to win football games for you."

Copyright 2001, 2002, Barry Maher. Used by permission.

Barry Maher consults, writes and speaks on professional development, motivation, management and sales. This article is adapted from his book, "Filling the Glass: The Skeptic's Guide to Positive Thinking in Business" which Today's Librarian recently cited as "[One of] The Seven Essential Popular Business Books." You can sign up for his free email newsletter at www.barrymaher.com or contact him at 760 962-9972 or barrymaher@barrymaher.com.

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