I have not attended a football post-game film session in 25 years, but the thought still elicits a cold chill.

“Mathews, let me ask you a question. Did you play the second half with a load of crap in your pants?”

“No, sir.”

“I’ll be damned if I’m not watching film of you playing with crap in your pants. There is no other explanation for why you can’t shed a block to save your life.”

[Teammates snickering]

“Oh, is that funny, McConnell? Because it looks like your little sister snuck into this game with your jersey on. I’ve never seen so many missed tackles.”

It wasn’t just high school football, a sport notorious for drill sergeant coaches. I played for hockey coaches like this from the time I could lace up skates.

The Notebook Of Shame

One travel hockey coach would take notes on every mistake. Make a bad pass and he called you off the ice while jotting a note in his notepad. Unnecessary penalty? Missed an open net? Lost a corner battle for a puck? He wrote it down.

In hockey, we didn’t have to wait for a film session. We had the pleasure of rehashing failures during each ten-minute intermission and immediately after the game.

We had a great team but our coach had us convinced otherwise. His speech was the same whether we were winning 3–0 or losing 3–0. He even lectured us on good outcomes that were executed poorly.

“Mathews, why did you take the shot on that power play?”

“Uh, the shot I scored on Coach?”

“That one! You had Cullen wide open on the wing and decided to take a low-percentage shot through all that traffic.”

We were talented enough to win most of our games but we rarely heard praise. I remember getting into my dad’s car on a few occasions with my head down.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I played terribly.”

“You won 7–2. What are you talking about?”

The result of this style of coaching was a group of kids who played tight. I remember wanting to get through games without Coach writing something about me in his notebook of shame.

Whenever a whistle blew, we were looking to the bench out of the corner of our eyes. We wanted to know if he was writing or watching, with the latter being acceptable.

As close as we were, it was a relief to see teammates make mistakes if you were personally having a bad game. It was better to have company to share in the misery with you.

When we played teams with equal or greater talent (see: Canadians), we cracked. You can’t win when you play to avoid mistakes. If circumventing failure is all you can think about, what chance do you have of winning?

That particular team was good enough to win a state championship. Instead, we flamed out early. Rather than being crushed, we were relieved that the season was over. Not playing was better than playing for that tyrant.

Teams Should Hold Themselves Accountable

Talented teams don’t need a manager constantly holding them accountable. If you feel that way as a manager, you are hiring poorly.

A leader’s role is facilitating an environment in which every person feels responsible for the team’s mission. Great teams hold each other to a high standard and self-regulate.

In my experience, two themes dictate a team’s ability to grow.

  1. How comfortable the team feels openly discussing failures, problems, and mistakes.
  2. How many people consider their teammates to be “close friends.”

A team that meets only one criterion can succeed but sustained success requires both.

The first theme predicts the collective mindset of a group of people. Teams who perceive mistakes as opportunities hold a competitive advantage over those who view failures as personal indictments.

Every manager wants a team with a growth mindset but most aren’t sure how to cultivate one. A team will respond to failure based on the reactions of their boss.

If you lose your temper, roll your eyes, demean and belittle every misstep, your team will delay and outright hide bad news from you. They will play defense, making decisions that limit the probability of mistakes.

Businesses can’t thrive when employees refuse to take risks. The choice that limits the probability of a mistake is rarely the option with upside.

Imagine a basketball team that refuses to shoot anything but open lay-ups. Each trip down the floor, teammates pass until the shot clock runs out, afraid of the consequences following a “bad shot.”

Meanwhile, the other team is firing three-point shots and playing loose. They accept that they need to miss six deep shots to hit four. You don’t need to understand the sport to predict who wins that game.

“I’m Not Trying To Outrun The Bear”

I worked for an insanely difficult senior executive early in my management career. He was an awkward conversationalist and had little to say outside of numbers.

He convened his managers weekly for an “accountability review.” One by one, we talked about last week’s sales forecast as compared to this week’s sales forecast. We talked about key wins, key losses, and new opportunities.

Those with green arrows on their slide (wins, increases to forecast) were met with effusive praise. Those showing red were subjected to public humiliation.

  • “What is so difficult about doing what you say?”
  • “Who gave you permission to lose that sale?”
  • “Fix this, or I will find someone who will.”

In a word, he was a jackass.

There’s an old joke about two hunters heading out for the day. One starts putting on running shoes in case they encounter a bear. This draws a laugh from his partner.

“Your shoes won’t help you outrun a bear.”

“I’m not trying to outrun the bear. I just need to be faster than you.”

This knee-slapper is a perfect illustration of how teams start to behave in the presence of a manager who behaves like a jerk.

The slides would get emailed to us the night prior to the meeting. The first thing I did was flip to the details that my peers submitted.

If my team was projecting to miss plan by 5%, I could relax if forecasted a miss of 10%. I might catch some grief but I would draw the least amount of attention in the pecking order. It was no different than feeling relieved when my hockey teammates made mistakes.

Knowing we were pitted against each other every week, how much collaborating do you think we did? 

If one of my peers had a best practice working with her team, she had zero incentive to share it with me. Her goal was to run faster than me, not our bear of a manager.

Managers started to fudge the slides. “Big opportunities” started slipping to future quarters with a back-ended forecast. We knew this was a stall technique and that a record fourth quarter wasn’t going to happen.

But it was easier to paint a rosy picture than deal with weekly beatings. This manager wanted total visibility but his behavior served only in muddying up his dashboard.

This Strategy Works At The Highest Level

Alan Mulally ran into this same scenario when he took over Ford as CEO. The company was compartmentalized and senior executives were routinely culled for missing targets.

This culture made it nearly impossible for Mulally to get a reliable look at where the business was headed. After several meetings with executives presenting slides showing healthy businesses, Mulally lost patience and stopped the meeting.

“We’re going to lose billions of dollars this year,” he said, staring each executive in the eyes, “Is there anything that’s not going well here?”

Ford’s American President, Mark Fields, was the first to raise his hand. He admitted to a quality problem that would delay the launch of a new vehicle.

Rather than berate his executive for incompetence, Mulally stood and gave him a theatric round of applause, “Excellent! Anyone else ever run into something like this?”

Taking this cue from their leader, several peers of Fields shared ideas on how to resolve the quality issue. Knowing that their new boss recognized and rewarded teamwork over posturing, Ford executives started collaborating.

Celebrating Failure

I attended a new hire orientation with 20 fresh faces who recently joined our company in the most recent quarter. The people in the room worked for different offices, and we had 17 at the time.

This was during a period of intense growth where it felt like a new orientation took place every two months. In this particular class, the group was agitated and vocal about it.

They were being asked to handle too much and too soon. I knew this and wasn’t sure how to change it. We couldn’t hire fast enough to keep up with our sales pace (a very good problem to have for a person in my position).

One group in the room stuck out. They were busier than everyone else in the room, but they were thriving and incredibly positive. It sounded like they worked for a different company and I wanted to know what the secret sauce was.

The managers in this office created a weekly process that was intuitive yet extraordinary. A “failure whiteboard” went up and every employee was encouraged to write lessons learned as they occurred.

Throughout the week, anyone who screwed up would share it in writing on the board. At the weekly meeting, the person who made the mistake was asked to share the following:

  1. What was the mistake?
  2. What were the ramifications?
  3. What was the solution?
  4. How can everyone else avoid it in the future?

Managers were not excluded from the process. In fact, they made sure to be the most active on the board.

Over time, the stigma of failure went away. The team laughed their way through this meeting. Those who experienced a similar situation joked and offered a sense of community. This took away the feeling of isolation that accompanies failure.

The other benefit was that those making mistakes were warning and educating their peers on how to avoid walking the same path. New employees learned about pitfalls they didn’t know existed.

Encourage Praise From Peers

I coach youth baseball and often think of my travel hockey coach when I address a team. I want to be deliberate in encouraging teamwork and must remind myself that kids put enough pressure on themselves. 

They don’t need me to recount every error in front of their peers after the game. But if I make the environment light enough, they won’t be shy about sharing those errors.

I ask two things after every game:

  1. Who saw a teammate do something great today?
  2. What we need to work on in practice based on something that happened today?

The first question always puts a smile on my face. New teams start off a little awkward, mostly because they are used to a coach giving a speech after the game. Some kids don’t get it and want to brag about something they did well.

But in short order, they pick up on the process and every hand goes up. It is easy for teams to highlight the kid who hit a home run or pitched a perfect game. I am always impressed with the emotional intelligence of 9-year olds who dish out praise to the boy who had a terrible game.

Teams who consider each other friends will go out of their way to pick up a teammate who had a bad day. They will find something that kid did well and highlight it.

What better way to make friends than offering sincere compliments? This works with adults and children alike. Who doesn’t love praise from a peer?

The love-fest is a perfect lead into asking what we need to work more on in practice. The order is very important.

Once they feel confident around their friends and content that they did some great things, kids are more assured in fessing up their mistakes. Surprisingly, every hand goes up when I ask about mistakes.

  • “I need to work on sliding.”
  • “I need to get better at catching fly balls.”
  • “We should practice stealing bases.”

I might add some color on the positive and negative but they cover 90% of what I would talk about without them. When the team owns the encouragement and accountability, it makes my job so much easier.

Before starting the next practice, I reiterate what they told me after the game and build a plan to improve based on their constructive feedback.

Putting It All Together

As a leader, your team takes its cues from you.

Nothing is more important than how you respond to mistakes and if you can’t invest in praise and recognition, why will your team?

Try starting your next weekly meeting as if you were talking to a little league baseball team. Lead with a simple question.

Who saw a teammate do something incredible this week?

It will start slow and you might need to plant a few examples with your most vocal people. Give them a heads up that this question is coming before the meeting so they have an example ready.

Once the group sees how happy this makes the person getting the praise, more hands will go up. By the third meeting, people will start looking forward to this exercise.

This sets a positive tone and gets your team smiling with minimal effort from you as the facilitator. It can also lead to a conversation about setbacks from the week and you can ask about this in a variety of ways.

  1. Who wants to share something that is causing you to lose sleep?
  2. What is a mistake someone made that the group could learn from? I will start with an example of a mistake I made as your manager this week.
  3. Who is stuck on something and why?

These exercises are simple to implement. They give autonomy to your team and lead to a more open and honest environment.

Before long, your team will lead itself. This is the mark of an exceptional leader.

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