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Turning Setbacks into Success: 6 Steps to Help Executives Reflect on Their Mistakes

New research highlights why it's important for senior leaders to take time to examine their management failures.


A woman is sitting in front of a laptop with her hand on her chin.


Historically, executives who make a bad move often respond by either blocking the memory, or worse, doubling down on the decision, to the detriment of their company—and their career.

Now, research from Ohio State University emphasizes the importance of reflecting on management mistakes in reducing toxic decisions by leaders and helping them grow on the job.

By reflecting on mistakes, executives can show humility, a quality that researchers say makes leaders more effective. Additionally, the OSU study says teams typically perform better when their leaders learn from their missteps.

"Everyone makes mistakes—even the best leaders inevitably do. But leaders are often expected to act dominant, confident and be the people fixing mistakes rather than making them. And that attitude may actually make them less effective," says Jasmine Hu, lead author of the study and a management professor at OSU's Fisher College of Business. "Understanding your own blind spots and vulnerabilities can help make you a better manager and leader."

The OSU study consisted of four smaller, related studies, one of which canvassed more than 450 managers across several industries. Researchers found that company leaders who reflected on a wrong decision but learned a lesson from the experience showed more humility than leaders who revisited a mistake without learning.

"The goal should be to learn from mistakes, not just focus on what went wrong," Hu says.

A Road Map to Reflection

Does reflecting on a failed decision work in the real world, where executives are often reluctant to admit they're wrong in the first place? Management experts say it does.

"The healthy humility mentioned in the study reflects a growth mindset—the understanding that no decision process is ever perfect," says Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University. "As one CEO I interviewed several years back said, 'I'm not as smart as they think I am when things go well, and I'm not as dumb as they say I am when things go poorly.' "

McNulty adds there is always something for executives to learn, especially when it comes to decision-making.

"Once you accept that premise, the pressure to be an infallible decision-maker is off," he says.

McNulty and other experts shared the following six steps to maximize the experience of reflecting on your decisions and learning how to leverage what you learn.

1. Turn the Decision Inside Out

If you make a decision that hurts the team or company, the first step in reflection is to separate the outcome from the process.

"Reverse engineer the process from the desired outcome," McNulty says. "Are there things that could have been done differently that would have improved the likelihood of a better result? Was information overlooked? Options not explored? Voices not heeded? Failure to realize what you didn't know? With these answers, figure out how will you change your process going forward."

2. Get Your Team Involved

Unless the mistake was catastrophic, avoid grand, public displays of self-deprecation and apology.

"Instead, gather your team and ask for their feedback on what could have been improved. It's important to get in this habit even when things go relatively well," says Apollo Emeka, a former Green Beret and founder of the business consulting firm Apollo Strategy Group. "As you're reflecting with the group, take responsibility for past missteps and ask what you can do to be more supportive of your team in the future."

3. Run It Back

If an executive makes a truly terrible call, it probably means they didn't consult their team before making that decision.

"Team members share the responsibility of making sure the team reaches its goals. But the ultimate accountability falls on the leader's shoulders," Emeka notes. "If you're a leader who made a bad decision without consulting your team, now is the time to break that habit. Get your team in the room and run a retrospective on the way the decision was made and how the execution of that decision played out."

4. Think like an Athlete

Leaders are often in such a rush to move forward that they forget the greatest lessons come from stopping and looking back.

"The way I communicate that reflection mindset to my clients is like an elite athlete watching old game footage," says Byron Morrison, a business coach and author. "In doing so, they will figure out what they did, how to improve and how to handle similar situations in the future. That's how they get their edge."

Decision-focused executives also need to learn to stop thinking of reflection as merely a way to beat themselves up.

"Instead, take it as an opportunity to develop," Morrison says. "After all, when you reflect on what you did and you learn for the future, that's how you build your confidence, intuition and improve your performance."

5. Know the Value of ‘Post-Action Reviews’

Agile executive teams have infrastructure in place to support reflection on mistakes—as well as achievements—at the organizational level.

"This helps create a learning organization and also normalizes the process of reflection," says Adelle Bish, an associate professor of management at North Carolina A&T State University. "Creating a structure to guide reflection also signals to employees that every decision has risks and that executives are interested in learning from mistakes."

When unpacking a big management mistake, make sure to examine the data used to make the decision and see what data was missing, as well as who was consulted before making the decision, Bish advises.

"These two aspects are important because there is a risk at the executive level that you are working with a smaller number of data sources, and you may be working with data that has already been filtered by others before it gets to you," she says. "You also may be consulting with a smaller group of trusted advisors, rather than remaining open to diverse perspectives and seeking out broader input."

6. Focus on Behavioral Changes

Bish notes there's a difference between reflecting on management mistakes and focusing on what went wrong.

"Reflecting on management mistakes is a purposeful step forward. It promotes constructive review with the intent to improve management practice," she explains. "Focusing on what went wrong does not change behaviors, and it doesn't help to develop management skills or serve to improve decision-making practices."

In contrast, "[r]eflecting on a big mistake demonstrates personal acceptance," Bish says. "It says you're not perfect, that you have a strong motivation to learn from experience and to develop your capacity as a management leader, as well as a commitment to the overall long-term success of the organization."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill, 2004).

 

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