Thanks go to President Obama for timing his first major Presidential misstep to coincide with my delivery of a “Being a Trusted Advisor” workshop.
In class, we had been talking about human nature and the gravitational pull to avoid admitting culpability and generally looking bad when—voila—there appeared the perfect teaching point on the front page of the New York Times.
Whatever your politics, there are two key lessons to be derived from the “I screwed up” message that President Obama delivered on the heels of Tom Daschle’s withdrawal from consideration as the next secretary of Health and Human Services:
1. Take full responsibility. He pointed his own finger at himself. He didn’t say “I regret the unfortunate circumstances and misinformation that led to the selection of Mr. Daschle.” He didn’t hitch his wagon to Daschle’s admission of his own mistake. No, Obama said, “I screwed up.”
2. Keep it simple. He used plain talk. Three simple words. I told workshop participants to use no more than ten words when there’s a hard truth to be told. Obama came in seven under.
Telling the truth when the truth makes you look good (as in, “Mr. Client, I have 20 years of experience solving the kinds of problems you are facing right now”) increases your credibility by demonstrating your expertise.
Telling the truth when the truth makes you look bad (as in, “I screwed up”) is a trust trifecta: your honesty boosts your credibility, your humanity creates intimacy, and your willingness to subordinate your own ego lowers your self-orientation.
It’s another part of the trust paradox: doing what makes you look bad (telling the truth) makes you look good. As long as you really mean it.