Team Management

3 Words That Will Make You a More Effective Leader

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
business man in the middle of a conversation in a brightly lit office

When I was a manufacturing supervisor, I developed what I thought was a genius productivity improvement plan. The crews involved disagreed, but I forged ahead. A few weeks later I realized they were right.

So I met with them and said:

“I know you didn’t think this would work, and you were right. I was wrong. Let’s move you back to your original shift.”

I assumed I’d lost their respect—but I was also wrong about that. One employee said, “I didn’t really know you, but the fact you were willing to admit you were wrong told me everything I needed to know.”

And then he proposed an idea he’d previously been afraid to share. 

By saying I was wrong, I had created a vulnerability loop: I wasn’t perfect, so he didn’t have to be either.

Even though we tend to respect, admire, and even emulate highly accomplished people, we don’t necessarily like them. Nor are they likely to be the most effective leaders. As one researcher writes, “A great deal of ability, in and of itself, might make the stimulus person seem ‘too good,’ unapproachable, distant, non-human.”

But if that same person occasionally admits a mistake, is willing to poke fun at themselves, or reveals an area of weakness? Then we like—and trust—them more.

And this is what can turn those achievers into good leaders. 

The pratfall effect

The phenomenon is something psychologists call the pratfall effect. It’s when admitting to an occasional mistake, misstep, or weakness makes competent people seem more approachable, more relatable, more human.

Depending on a person’s perceived ability to perform well—a key element of the pratfall effect—their attractiveness rises or falls after an error. Highly capable people are viewed as more likable, while people with average or below-average competence become less likable. 

Or in simple terms, if you’re generally awesome and one day admit you made a poor decision, that makes you seem more human and oddly charming. (And serves as a reminder that most of the time, you’re amazing.) But if you continuously make mistakes and one day make another, you’re even less likable or respected. 

How the pratfall effect can help you as a business owner

So what can the pratfall effect do for business owners?

It helps build trust.

In his book “The Culture Code,” Daniel Coyle describes a vulnerability loop. When a leader shows vulnerability by admitting a mistake or weakness, it allows an employee to do the same. The result? More open, candid, honest conversations that build trust—and drive performance. 

According to Coyle, leadership isn’t about the big moments, but rather the small moments of confession. Which is why Navy SEAL Dave Cooper says, “The most important words a leader can say is, ‘I screwed that up.'”

Why? While you might think admitting a mistake will cause you to lose respect, the opposite is true. 

It can strengthen your brand.

Simple time tracking that syncs with payroll.

Oddly enough, admitting your company or products have a flaw can increase your brand’s appeal. Avis pioneered underdog advertising with its “When You’re #2, You Try Harder” campaign. A Domino’s ad campaign admitted the pizza chain’s crust once tasted like “cardboard.”

Why does admitting a weakness work? Research shows sharing one or two opposing viewpoints is more persuasive than only stating the benefits of what you offer.

Why? No product, no service, no brand is perfect. By openly sharing a potential weakness, you naturally seem more honest and authentic. And you get the opportunity to show how your brand mitigates or overcomes that weakness.

Admit your price is higher, then describe why yours is the better value proposition. Admit your service is slower, then explain how greater attention to detail and higher quality benefits your customers.

Just keep in mind your brand needs to be perceived as generally excellent. Admitting one weakness when customers know you have 10 others won’t increase your brand’s appeal. As with leaders, highly competent brands are seen more positively when they admit a mistake; incompetent brands lose even more respect.

As long as you follow 2 rules

Sharing a weakness can also backfire. 

Say you just purchased an existing business and tell your new team, “I’m new to this industry and am quite frankly not sure where to start to turn this company around. So I will definitely need your help.”

While displaying vulnerability and asking for help might seem like a good thing, admitting your lack of confidence (and lack of a plan) can make you look weak and ineffective. It may cause you to lose, not gain credibility with your new employees. 

A better approach? Say, “I’m excited to put new initiatives in place. But I know I’m relatively new to this industry, so I’ll definitely need your help. And especially your ideas.” 

The fact you have a plan—any plan—inspires confidence. Admitting you don’t have all the answers inspires trust.

So how should you decide what weakness or fault to share, and how?

  1. Only share a mistake if doing so benefits your audience. If sharing only makes you feel better or is a thinly veiled attempt to harness the power of the pratfall effect, don’t share. But sometimes sharing helps you develop a relationship, puts an error into perspective, or helps others learn from your mistakes. In short, if it helps create a positive vulnerability loop—then by all means, share.
  2. Make sure you’re working hard to perform at as high a level as possible. Remember: As one researcher writes, “A near-perfect or superior individual who shows that he is capable of an occasional blunder or pratfall… will be liked better and be more effective because of this pratfall. (But) if a mediocre or average person commits an identical blunder… it will suggest only that he is very mediocre and will lower his appeal and effectiveness.”

In short: First be awesome. Then admit a fault or two.

Better yet, ask for help, but do it the right way. Don’t frame your request or try to predict what the answer or solution might be. Say what you can’t do, and ask for help. 

That approach instantly conveys humility and respect; after all, you can do something that I can’t. That approach shows you’re willing to listen.

That approach shows you’re human.

All of which will make you a better and more effective leader.

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.

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