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Leaders Make Mistakes, but Not All Mistakes are Created Equal

Leaders have an outsized influence over our lives at work and beyond. As a result, we tend to forget that leaders are also people, and people are prone to mistakes. But what kinds of mistakes do leaders typically make? How do followers typically respond? And, most importantly, what are the potential consequences for leaders who make the wrong mistake at the wrong time?

Although we often think of leadership as a personal attribute or a result of organizational hierarchy, leadership is really a process of relationship building and maintenance between individuals serving in “leader” and “follower” roles. This implies that leaders should behave in a way that maximizes how they are viewed in the eyes of followers. For example, if a leader takes an action or makes a decision that violates what a follower expects of them, they run the risk of damaging the relationship and losing their ability to influence and lead in the future.

A series of studies have explored the nuances of leader error, noting some important trends. A 2013 study drew an important distinction between “task errors” (mistakes that make completing work more difficult) and “relationship errors” (mistakes that change how a leader is viewed by others). It shows that leaders are likely to make both kinds of mistakes over time, but the way mistakes are interpreted by followers differ based on mistake type. Subsequent research has consistently found that relationship errors are more damaging to how leaders are evaluated and how willing people are to follow that leader in the future than are task errors. Following this research, I and my colleague Dr. Sam Hunter questioned whether the impact of a leader errors depends not only on the type of mistake, but when that mistake occurs. Imagine a scenario where a person leading you on a project gives you incomplete instructions which make it impossible for you to complete your task. If you notice that mistake early in the process, does that make it easier to excuse than if the mistake occurred toward the end?

In a recently published experiment, we found that task errors are judged differently based on when they occur in a performance period. When leaders make task mistakes early on, the lack of time pressure on performance allows for easier recovery and better perceptions of leadership moving forward than if the same mistake occurred late. Relationship errors, however, showed no difference in effect based on error timing. More importantly, regardless of when a relationship error occurred it was significantly more damaging to follower perceptions of leadership than any task error, reinforcing the findings of prior research.

Based on this research, leaders should make sure they are keenly aware of how their mistakes may be interpreted. Errors are unavoidable, but by understanding the nuances of how a particular mistake in a particular context is likely to be interpreted, leaders can be better equipped to address them.

Keywords: Leadership, Relationships, Mistakes

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