Why confession is a healthy organisational practice.
To be in a state of grace is to be absolved of sin. To repent is to be exonerated, and to atone is to be pardoned. To err is human, and to forgive is divine. It is the most revered sacrament because it encourages us to look forward, not backward.
Odd start for a leadership column, right? Stay with me.
A few months ago, a client shared how she’d badly mishandled a project. The particulars aren’t important. She did what we all do: stumble, screw up, drop the ball. Not because of incompetence or negligence, but because our best efforts don’t always succeed. To me the disquieting part was that she was still embarrassed and self-conscious. She still thought her credibility was wounded. The fact that she carried this weight after three months vouches that both she and her employer engaged in an unwitting conspiracy to create an untenable situation. She didn’t apologize, they didn’t forgive.
The two most difficult sentences to utter are: “I’m sorry” and “You’re forgiven.” The former admits fault, whereas the latter discharges it. Both are hard. Being sorry means acknowledging our shortcomings. That’s something we’re loath to do, as it bruises the pride that protects our fragile egos. Forgiving another is equally threatening because it requires genuine magnanimity, abdicating “l’authorité de la persone”. When this reciprocal exchange doesn’t occur, a toxic cycle is triggered that leaves us cowed and our employers disappointed.
How do we reach a state of organizational grace? A state where we aren’t afraid of failing, and our firms aren’t afraid of that either? A state where license is practiced as well as endorsed? (My friend, Jerry Harvey, wrote about this in his celebrated book, The Abilene Paradox. Definitely worth a read.)
For our part, we have to place our precious pride aside. The problem is that we’re savagely self-protective; an instinctual reaction to a threatening world. Overcoming the instinct begins with faith. In this context faith is simply the belief in our own competence. But to be competent is to learn, and to learn is to know what we have to learn, and to know what we have to learn is to own our own weaknesses and transgressions.
We have to quit taking things so personally. A single mistake doesn’t define our professional identity. I can’t even count my mistakes. But that’s all they were, and they were shameful only when I repeated the same ones over and over. All of us know that none of us is perfect. In fact, we don’t like perfect people, so why would we want to be one?
But faith in us is not enough. We must have faith in our firms. That’s where leadership comes in. Leaders can create environments where thoughtful failures are embraced. That’s where culture—even the micro-culture of a unit or department—comes in. Performance, or lack thereof, is part and parcel the product of culture; ignore it at your peril. Culture’s a good thing, but if it gets in the way of taking chances without the burden of disappointment, then it should bend or break.
Leaders can also resist building performance metrics exclusively around quantitative metrics. Such appraisal systems don’t capture reasoned risk, creativity and innovation. Follow the money; reward it and it gets done, don’t and it doesn’t. Leaders can craft policy that consents to deviation by not marking those who deviate as deviants.
Participating in this debilitating conspiracy is mutual. We want to be forgiven, but we can’t get it unless we ask for it. Our organizations want to forgive us, but they can’t do it unless their leaders understand its importance. That’s a shame, because if we were released from our penitence, like my client needed to be, we could look forward instead of backward. A wonderful life is made when we fall without fear because we know we’ll be caught. That’s when ideas flow. That’s when performance peaks. That’s when you and I want to come to work.
There’s an Irish sentiment, to “throw the jute on the burning ground.” Jute is a heavy reed used for thatching. To carry it is a burden. The burning ground is a place where we’re liberated from that burden. To be in a state of organisational grace means asking for, and being granted, forgiveness.