Have you ever worked with someone who was quick to take credit for every successful outcome they had a connection to, but who, at the first sign of trouble, would just as quickly assign blame to any and everyone involved – besides themselves? Or worse, have you ever realized after the fact that you have been guilty of doing this? Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, writes about “the window and the mirror,” a simple yet powerful concept exemplified by leaders of companies that made the Good to Great transition:
[They] look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck). At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.
Following a window/mirror model can help you build credibility with your direct reports, among your peers, and even with those higher up the organizational ladder. Here are a few keys to understanding “the window and the mirror” model, and applying it to your leadership strategy:
1) Look out the window and give credit to those responsible for positive outcomes
For many, this is an easy step. Make sure those around you know that you recognize their contributions, and understand how they relate to the success of the program, project, or task at hand. Taking 5 seconds to tell someone “good job” can pay huge dividends in terms of loyalty and buy in, not to mention that you probably will make their day. Also, be certain to publicly give them credit, even in situations where they are not present. If you are in a meeting and receive positive feedback for something, but feel a person or team deserves a significant portion of the credit for the success, say so. This will bolster the reputation of the team/team member in the eyes of others within the organization, and has the added benefit of serving as a reminder that you are the successful leader of a group of high-performing people.
2) Look in the mirror and take ownership of negative outcomes
This one can be a bit more difficult, but is just as crucial.
Nothing is more destructive to a team than a lack of trust. One of the many ways a trust deficit can be created or made worse is through externally assigning blame for failure, especially in public situations. If a leader does this to a member of their team, what reason does the team have to trust their leader in the future? This does not mean that you shouldn’t hold others accountable for poor performance. It does mean, however, that you need to make one thing perfectly clear: the buck stops with you. Your team falling short of a goal, missing a deadline, or performing sub-par work all share one common trait – it was your team that failed. Look in the mirror to identify how you could have been a better leader: review your instructions, communication style, follow up processes, etc. Does your team bear a level of responsibility for failing to meet an objective? Absolutely. However as their leader, you bear a greater responsibility to ensure that such situations are avoided. Take ownership of these instances and work with individuals to identify and remedy specific areas of opportunity. If the entire team fell short, address this in a straight-forward manner during your next team meting. If an individual is primarily responsible for a failure, have a direct conversation with them during their next one-on-one meeting. People need to know if they have failed to meet expectations, but they also need to know that they can trust you to be fair, to communicate openly and to have their interests in mind.
3) Understand luck
Everyone experiences luck, but it is your preparation for and reaction to a specific luck event that most significantly shapes the outcome. An excellent chapter in Great By Choice by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen is dedicated to understanding, defining, and studying luck and luck events. I urge you to read the book (my favorite Collins book) and in particular the luck chapter. In short, all companies detailed in the book – and their leaders – experienced luck. Further, the ratio of luck events – both good and bad – for the test case companies within the same industry is roughly equivalent. Are luck events real? Yes. Can bad luck events make circumstances markedly worse? Absolutely. However such events are rarely the proximate cause of failure. Dig deeper to see what you as a leader could have done to mitigate the effects of a bad luck event. In doing so, you’ll learn things about yourself, your team, your company and most likely your industry that will help to prepare you for the next luck event.
The concept of the window and the mirror is simple to understand, but can take time and practice to execute effectively. Fortunately, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to hone your skills. Remember to give credit where credit is due, be accountable for negative outcomes, provide timely and appropriate feedback to under-performing team members, and to prepare for and review luck events. Doing so will help you to build trust within your team, build credibility for yourself within your organization, and move closer to becoming the leader you want to be.