You Can’t Make People Feel Stupid

I’m preparing a presentation on accountability for a group of CPAs and it has me thinking why we have not done a better job increasing accountability in the workplace. This topic is still one of the most requested needs from my clients. I have found that leaders typically react with a bias to action and sense of urgency to ‘fix the problem’  instead of giving room for people to grow and change.  Strategies for holding people accountable range from the most severe “I am the hammer, you are the nail’ style of accountability to milk toast conversations that pretend to confront misaligned behavior.  The truth is most managers and leaders are woefully unskilled in creating a culture of accountability in a fashion that is productive and long-lasting.

At every level, making decisions is all about managing risks which always carries with it an opportunity to miss the mark. People make mistakes.  But many leaders react as if the person is a corporate saboteur who has purposely committed the error to bring down the company!

If I fail and my manager makes me feel bad/guilty/stupid; most likely my tolerance for taking risks diminishes. It means I will feel safer by taking fewer risks and work to maintain the status quo.

This creates a cycle of low productivity which leads to disengagement which leads to… know the rest.

So what does the role of a leader look like when dealing with a person who has just made a mistake?   Help the person move from looking back to looking forward. Shift the person’s thinking to how this should go in the future – what needs to happen differently to make the outcome a positive one. This takes courage and patience on the part of the leader. Courage to face the person directly and state the truth: both about the person and the situation and the consequences.  And, patience to give the person enough room to learn and behave in a different way.

But, you can’t make people feel stupid when they make a mistake.


In my next post, I will address the employee’s role….