"Tell me how I failed you." A senior leader directed this request to an employee whose business unit was about to be dramatically restructured. The previous manager of the unit had done a poor job and the unit was in disarray. The senior leader was challenged with rebuilding the unit and installing new management.
Being accountable for results does not mean merely being responsible for outcomes. It also means being responsible for what goes wrong along the way, especially when mistakes cause people and projects to go so far off track that an entire business falls into jeopardy.
When leaders admit failure, they put themselves squarely in line for blame. It requires fortitude to step up and accept responsibility when things go wrong. To do so with an underling is even gutsier. It displays vulnerability; to me it also demonstrates strength of character. It implicates the boss in the problem. More important, it solicits dialogue.
The challenge for you as a leader is to figure out what to do next. You need to make certain that employees feel comfortable offering candid advice to you—someone who has authority over them. Ideally, groundwork for such conversation needs to be laid well in advance. If such preparation hasn't occurred, what then do you do? Here are two important questions to ask your direct reports:
What should I have done differently? When asked sincerely and with a genuine desire for useful information, this question becomes an invitation to give the boss a behind-the-scenes look at what really happened. Too often senior leaders do not have the opportunity to delve into detail because they are preoccupied with other tasks. This is not an issue when things are going smoothly. It becomes an issue when things are not going well.
What do you think we ought to do now? This invites the employee to offer his or her own suggestions for improvement. You should view this as more than just a polite, pro forma question. You'd be surprised at how much insight employees might can have about problematic situations. Sometimes they will suggest quick remedies: notify customers, review expenditures, and reevaluate team members' skill sets. Even if more complex, longer-term solutions await further investigation, you will have initiated a process in which employees will feel welcome to participate.
Asking these questions is a good door opener. It lays a foundation for trust between leader and follower. Trust is not enough to rectify problems. That requires action. Trust, however, makes it possible for action to be taken more quickly and effectively.
Employees, too, have the right to ask their boss: "What are you going to do about it?" How you answer will set the stage for what comes next. Ideally you should be able to place the failure in context—explaining why and how it happened and what needs to happen in the next weeks or month. (Projecting too far ahead might run the risk of overpromising and under-delivering.)
Leaders who ask good questions in the wake of failure demonstrate that they are willing be part of the solution. That provides a degree of reassurance to followers who are looking for guidance. At the same time, leaders should ask others to pitch in. Fixing problems requires the involvement of people who are willing to accept responsibility for what went wrong by demonstrating a commitment to putting things right.