Admitting failure — Oh, good, you are human.

Getting in the aid blog action this week…. this post is part of J.’s Aid Blog Forum. Topic: Admitting aid failure.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of soul searching lately. (Not soul-mate searching, I already found one of those). Soul searching… like trying to figure myself out and deciding whether or not I even like the self that I discover myself to be.

So I’ve been reading books (it might have just been like one or two books), and I took one of those strengths assessment tests and I even pulled out the old Birkman’s results. I coupled these bits of physical philosophy with conversations with anyone who will stick around long enough to listen to me. Depending on how long you stick around, you’ll get to hear me curse the wind or start crying — the mental case in me reveals itself after a certain time length.

And that’s precisely the moment when I start to make rapid assumptions about my life. Like I’m a total loser or I have no friends or I’m bad at my job. (Note here: One of those mini individual Reese’s peanut butter cups cures the problem for about an hour).

Ten or twenty minutes later, my dramatically depressed mind turns to well, do I change myself or do I just allow myself to be comfortable with who I am? Flaws and specks of fallen humanity and all. I usually go through 24-48 hour cycles of this type of conversation in my head, and sometimes out loud, about once a week. (Note again here: I’m trying to get better at this by spacing it out every two weeks if I can… at least the public declarations).

(If you’re wondering where I’m going with this on “admitting aid failure”, stick with me… it’s coming)

Essentially, all my soul searching is leading me to one basic conclusion — I’m a completely and widely misunderstood person. Even my Birkman’s and strengths assessments will tell you that with just a tad bit of effort reading between the lines. I suppose it’s no mystery that the same attributes we consider inspiring and characteristic of the best kind of employee are also the same attributes that, in my opinion, can be terribly misunderstood. Attributes like passion, creativity, commitment to productivity, strategy, sense of humor…  (And who wouldn’t like a passionate, purpose-driven, productive person with a nice sense of humor?!?! I know, right!?) Those attributes are sometimes misunderstood for opinionated, serious, maybe even selfish if given the opportunity to be threats of confidence to it’s opponents.

So this whole being misunderstood thing has lead me to a secondary conclusion about what separates my life philosophy from other people’s life philosophy, by which I’ve observed — and it’s a little thing called respect. It’s actually quite easy in my head — you respect me, I’ll respect you, I’ll respect you, you respect me. We mutually give each other things to to respect about one another. This creates a a friendship or working relationship, whatever it may be, that is built on a major underlying principle for me… respect. Respect can be created and maintained in several ways, but once lost, it can be very hard to get back. Like a penny in one of those dirty fountains in L.A. that parents let their kids swim in.

(Here’s where I nonchalantly tie in the aid failure part) …. For me, there’s something about admitting failure that’s totally respectable. When you hear of a politician or a company or a leader of some sort admit their failures and mistakes it actually makes you a little tingly inside — like where you want to say, oh, good, you are human.

The reason why you get that feeling is because admitting failure is almost oddly comforting. Not in the way that failure itself is comforting, but it’s the admitting part that is. As an admitted failure, there’s a real sense of relief in knowing you’re not trying to cover your ass with something you’ve seriously just pulled out of it. And as a part of the audience of an admitted failure, it’s completely respectable to know that the person before you is honest, heartfelt and is dedicated to learning.

Like for me, I’m not even an aid blogger. I don’t even think I’m a real aid worker… and if I am, I’m probably the most hated kind — the kind that sits behind a laptop and campaign codes. I’m an aid blogging failure (or maybe an aid blogging misfit… I like that better).

Actually, most weeks, I’m a total failure at even keeping up this blog.

The point is, there’s no shame in being human and making mistakes. Mistakes are expected. In fact, they should be accounted for. It’s the “not recognizing your mistakes and repeatedly making them over and over again” that is shameful because sooner or later, everyone will start to notice but you. That’s why one of the biggest mistakes in leadership you can ever make is refusing to admit when you’ve failed.

Likewise, this goes for agencies, companies, the government (oh, the mistakes of the government), the church (oh, the mistakes of the church), and aid organizations/workers.

When I wrote above that everyone will start to notice your mistakes except for you, I wasn’t just thinking generally about leadership. I was also thinking about aid organizations (and charitable orgs, in general) who are under the spotlight for the their transparency, or lack thereof, accountability and credibility in the last decade. If five years ago “social justice” was the name of the aid-support river, we would be very foolish to keep pretending like that river didn’t gain a hell of a lot of white rapids in the last three years.

The rise of philanthropic capitalism, the marketing justice movement and CSR are just the beginning of a long river of sharp rocks and waterfalls in the sector of humanitarian aid. Aid organizations better start swimming upstream and against the current if they think they are going to last in the next decade.

Admitting failure is a critical and necessary first step swimming upstream and gaining back a distrusting and skeptical supporter base. It’s a first step to gaining some respect.

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  • Peter

    I like the rushing river metaphor. Good one.

    What’s equally important is *when* and *how* you admit your mistakes. If you do so on your own volition, and you accurately acknowledge the depth of the mistake, you come across as humble and genuine to your audience. Here is an example of a company that did just that. It’s very possible to fess up to your own misdeeds without running into a backlash.

    On the other hand, if you only acknowledge your mistake after others have already called you on it — or you fail to be transparent about what the mistake really was — you look like you’re just trying to cover your ass. That’s what Netflix did. The CEO only apologized after customers created an uproar, and even when he did, he didn’t apologize for the right thing. (He said he wasn’t “communicative” enough about the changes to the service. Actually, people were pissed that the prices were pretty much doubling.) Too little, too late. Today, Netflix announced that it had lost 800,000 subscribers in the past three months.

  • Ahhh.. I so appreciate the references you’ve included. Really great examples. You’re so right… there’s something to say about those who admit their mistakes and do so genuinely. For me, the genuine and the rare often come together.

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