Tip #24: Signal Fallibility Early and Often

When I visited Pixar, I toured a relatively new studio building with Ed Catmull, the company’s cofounder and president. It was a stunningly beautiful building, brimming with mind-bendingly creative art and sunlit gathering spaces. As we walked, I said, “Ed, this is the coolest building I’ve ever seen.”

Catmull stopped, turned, and looked me square in the eye.

“Actually,” he said, “this building was a mistake.”

I was shocked. “Really?”

“Yes,” Catmull said evenly. “It doesn’t create the kinds of interactions we need to create. We should have made the hallways wider. We should have made the café bigger, to draw more people. We should have put the offices around the edges to create more shared space in the center. So it wasn’t like there was one mistake. There were really a lot of mistakes, along with of course the bigger mistake that we didn’t see most of the mistakes until it was too late.”

I remained stunned. When you compliment most leaders on their beautiful buildings, most of them say, “Thanks.” But not Catmull. Why?

A few weeks later, I found the answer. I was in Virginia Beach, Virginia, having breakfast with Navy SEAL Team 6 command master chief Dave Cooper. Cooper is known for creating some of the most cohesive SEAL teams, including the ones that killed Osama bin Laden. Midway through breakfast, Cooper said this:

“The most important four words a leader can say are, I screwed that up.”

Bingo. Like all good leaders, Catmull and Cooper know that signaling fallibility is the all-important start of a vulnerability loop, that powerful moment when a group shares its weaknesses in order to get stronger. They know that weak cultures hide their problems; strong cultures continually reveal them so that they can be solved together. Here are a few ways to do that:

  1. Explicitly Ask for Help

    It’s not enough merely to admit you don’t have all the answers. You also have to actively invite people to jump in and help. Cooper and Catmull are fans of phrases like:

    I’d love for everybody to take some shots at this idea.
    Tell me what we’re missing here.
    We’re definitely going to get some things wrong here.
    This is just our first try—What will take this to the next level?
    I need you to poke some holes in this.

    Precisely what phrase you use doesn’t matter—so long as it contains a clear signal: I need your help to make this better.

  2. Frame Fallibility Around Learning

    One common hesitation about expressing fallibility is that it risks signaling incompetence. The solution is to frame your fallibility around a desire to improve. So use phrases like I’m really curious to learn more and Who in our group can tell us more about this issue? Can you teach me how to do that?

  3. Seek to Have Strong Opinions, Flexibly Held

    You might think that people in strong cultures have strong opinions—and you’re right. But here’s the thing: They combine that passion with a deep openness to the possibility that they might be wrong. They take strong positions but never fight to the death. I like the phrase “backbone of humility” because it captures the paradoxical nature of this quality: combining the enthusiastic strength to make your case with a profound, continual willingness to learn from others. As Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, likes to say, “It’s okay to admit what you don’t know. It’s okay to ask for help. And it’s more than okay to listen to the people you lead—in fact, it’s essential.”