Have you or someone else ever been quick to take credit for a successful outcome you were connected to, but at the first sign of trouble, assigned blame to any and everyone involved?
When we are successful, it’s easy to look at ourselves and think “I did great!” And when we fail, it’s easy to look at others and think “It’s their fault!” Basically we look in the mirror when we succeed, and we look through a window at others when we fail.
This is a well-understood scientific phenomenon, by the way, called the self-serving bias. As described by Dr. Alice Boyes in an article from Psychology Today:
The self-serving bias is people’s tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors. It’s a common type of cognitive bias that has been extensively studied in social psychology.
Another good explanation comes from this three minute clip from MinuteVideos:
So what does the self-serving bias have to do with us at work? Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great talks about leadership and the concept of the window and the mirror. When we succeed, we should look through the window at others to see what is going on with them and give them credit. And when we fail, we should look in the mirror at ourselves and take responsibility.
This concept is powerful and can help you build credibility with all the stakeholders in your organization—peers, direct reports, vendors, and customers.
Here are three keys to help you apply the window and mirrors strategy to your leadership:
Key #1: Look out the Window and Give Credit to those Responsible for Positive Outcomes
Make sure the people around you know that you recognize and value their contributions. Doing this creates loyalty and buy-in. Even when you’re in situations where other people are not present, make sure you give them credit. That means to attribute good work to the people who did it that don’t happen to be in the room, and also that you put names of contributors on documents and other permanent materials. Also, if you hear positive feedback about someone, make sure you share that with that person.
Key #2: Look in the Mirror and take Ownership of Negative Outcomes
This isn’t always easy, but it’s so critical. Assigning blame for failure on others erodes trust. You, as the leader, are ultimately responsible for missing a deadline or for sub-par work from your department. After all, it was your team that failed.
Look in the mirror to see how you could have been a better leader. Were expectations clear? Did you communicate well or provide feedback? Take ownership of these occurrences and work to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Then work with your employees to hold them accountable for their part of the situation.
Key #3: Understand Luck. Everyone Experiences Luck—Good and Bad
How you prepare for it and react to it determines the outcome. As a leader, you need to dig deeper to see what you could have done to mitigate the efforts and what you can do in the future to be better prepared.
Windows, Mirrors, and Luck in Your Own Organization
The concept of the windows and the mirrors is easy to understand, but it takes time and practice to do it well. Doing so will not only build trust within your organization, but will also help you be a better leader.
After all: much of the good work that happens in the world occurs outside of your sphere of influence and therefore you need to look through the window to see it. And the good work that happens in your own life happens inside yourself, so you must look in the mirror to see yourself.
Best of luck!