Many engineers, project managers and other technical professionals I speak with spend a great deal of their time working in teams. Through my conversations with them, they have shared their most significant challenges in terms of leadership of self and others. Based on my observations and my own experience as an engineer, project manager and leader, many of their challenges revolve around confronting unpredictable situations arising from team members who make errors or produce poor quality work. In this article, I share the potential ramifications when responsibility and vulnerability are lacking in a team and effective ways of handling project breakdowns when someone else is at fault.
A common initial reaction from a leader when a team member makes an avoidable project error is frustration and anger. These emotions are often followed by blame, with the leader verbally attacking the individual, who typically either makes excuses for their actions or withdraws. This may lead to other negative emotions, such as resentment and guilt. Ultimately, neglecting to deal effectively with the situation may result in project delays or failure and damaged relationships within the team. This vicious cycle often repeats itself when working on future projects. Eventually, the negative energy irrevocably damages the team culture, which can filter throughout the entire organisation.
Not long after beginning my professional journey as a team leader more than ten years ago, I remember providing what I thought were clear instructions to develop a mobile application to a team member I had recently hired. When the developer subsequently produced the finished product, it was far from what I had envisaged. Anger sparked an almost instant reaction of blame, and I accused him of incorrectly following my instructions. This led the developer to defend his actions and withdraw from the conversation rather than accept responsibility, causing my frustration levels to soar. Instead of dealing with the situation effectively, I found myself increasingly stressed, to the point where I felt it would be easier to withdraw from the conversation and do my best to recover from the situation. The cost of this was a failed project that resulted in financial loss, ongoing resentment, deteriorated relationships, and reduced team well-being.
As I became more experienced in leading individuals and teams, I recognised my own responsibility in the matter, especially after encountering a similar situation where another developer completely misinterpreted my design specifications. On this occasion, despite being aware of my rising frustration levels, I made a conscious decision to take responsibility for the matter and apologise to him for not providing clearer instructions. My sincere apology arose from an awareness that I was responsible for the outcome. Furthermore, being vulnerable, rather than having my defences up, enabled me to have the courage to step forward and admit my part in the problem. In the end, my genuine apology supported the developer to also apologise and take responsibility from his end. The dialogue between us immediately changed to being caring, compassionate and authentic, and the designer promptly returned to the drawing board to rectify the design. The result was a high-quality outcome and increased trust and respect between the developer and me, which created a ripple effect throughout the team.
Choosing the pathway of responsibility and forgiveness
By now, you may have recognised the two pathways we can take when someone else screws up. Each can lead to a dramatically different outcome. We can choose the pathway of not being responsible for any problem that may arise, which is when we play the victim card or blame and accuse others. However, a lack of responsibility almost always leads to the other person defending or withdrawing, resulting in adverse outcomes such as deteriorated relationships, reduced well-being amongst the team, and poor project outcomes.
The alternative is to choose the pathway of responsibility when someone else lets you down.
Being responsible for managing your own emotions, such as anger and frustration, leads to more effective communication, better project outcomes and positive relationships. Ultimately, by being responsible, you are an active agent of change, regardless of the source of the problem, rather than a victim of circumstance. It’s about choosing powerfully to assess the problem, own your part in it, and therefore be part of the solution.
Being responsible also requires us to forgive ourselves and others. When things go wrong, and we recognise our contribution to the problem, we may experience guilt and shame. These emotions are natural; they reflect the reality of the situation and our deeper values. To move beyond guilt and shame, we need to bring self-forgiveness to the table. Only when we can forgive ourselves, such as the way we handled a problem, can we move on to proactively solve the issue at hand. It is equally important to bring forgiveness to the other party. The more responsibility you take on your end, the more you will require forgiveness, while at the same time, the more you can then feel empowered to influence the situation towards a positive outcome. When you are being responsible and also have a high degree of forgiveness, you are more likely to be effective in all aspects of your life and influence outcomes beyond your own personal life – in your teams, organisation and the world.
Next time you face a challenging situation, such as when someone on your project team makes an error, I encourage you to remember these steps to help you manage the situation more effectively. Firstly, you can choose to be vulnerable and accept the situation as the reality that is unfolding. Secondly, you can choose to be responsible by owning your part in the problem. Thirdly, you can choose to be curious to understand the root cause and decide to make a mental note of it to ensure you don't make the same mistake again. Finally, you can choose to bring forgiveness to the table. You can forgive yourself and others and take the appropriate actions to rectify the situation and move on with a level of wisdom and understanding that did not exist before the experience.