“Wrong Until Right” Does NOT Mean “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” – Part 2

Leaders revoking empowerment and reversing agility

In the last insight, we started looking at situations in which something went wrong that involved others in your business, as opposed to primarily you as a leader.

Micromanagement reduces empowerment, motivation, and success - Mike Russell

Two responses are common.  The first is to seek someone to blame.  The second is to usurp control and try to personally correct the situation.  Unfortunately, those two responses lead to lower performance and poorer results over time, especially in an environment of relentless change.

The previous insight looked at the first response.  In this edition, we’ll look at the second.

On the surface, a leader taking control to fix a situation doesn’t seem like a bad thing.  The leader usually has more experience and can use the leadership position to get things done.  In situations where time is critical, this may be a valid approach.

However, a leader’s taking control does not increase organizational performance long-term and may actually be slower in getting results.

To increase organizational performance in general and agility in particular, the goal is to empower more people to quickly handle more situations … to increase their “response-ability” by broadening their capabilities.  If a leader takes back “control” – revokes empowerment – when problems arise, the leader limits others learning problem-solving.  This leads to a negative cycle where the leader feels that control must be taken back as the workers are not capable of handling the problem, while doing so perpetuates the need for the leader to continually seize control.

The cycle may make the leader feel needed, but it does nothing to increase the problem-solving capabilities of workers and the overall performance capacity of the business.

A leader’s taking control also reduces empowerment and autonomy during problem situations.  After this happens repeatedly, workers will tend to assume the leader will swoop in anyway, leading to workers adjusting down to the lower levels of empowerment and autonomy.  This then often extends lower worker performance, i.e., more direction needed from leaders, to situations where there is no problem.  And this leads to less responsiveness and initiative on the part of workers.  Empowerment enters a negative spiral downward.

Reducing empowerment – autonomy – reduces motivation.  So the negative spiral accelerates.

As external changes buffet the business, the business becomes slower to respond as decisions and problems are more and more deferred to leaders.  This can also limit and slow innovation as innovation will then depend on fewer people and viewpoints/ideas.

How can a leader get out of the negative spiral from taking back control?  By inculcating both “Wrong Until Right” and “work on rather than in” mindsets,

The “Wrong Until Right” mindset assumes things will go wrong as the business searches for paths to success in unpredictable environments.  This is the opposite of the “right until wrong” mindset that assumes everything can be planned in advance and few changes will be needed down the road.

In environments of high change, a leader who uses the incorrect “right until wrong” mindset and takes back control may also be wrong in the approach to “fixing” the problem!  The leader’s experience – part of the rationalization for taking back control – may not be an accurate guide in resolving issues.

The key for a leader is to separate poor performance from “Wrong Until Right” errors.  The latter do not necessarily require intervention, except for providing support and aiding learning.

The “work on rather than in” mindset assumes the leader’s primary job as an organizational leader (not an expert leader like a surgeon) is to build others’ contributions and performance, not to be an individual contributor.  Leaders build others by constantly improving the work environment, removing obstacles and performance-reducers while adding/improving things that help people perform better.  Leaders also build others by increasing individual abilities.  Under this mindset, problems are seen as teaching and learning opportunities rather than as purely poor performance and punitive issues.

Taken together, the two mindsets mean that leaders prepare for problems by building problem-solving skills of others both before and during problem situations.  In some cases, a leader may need to step in and contribute personally to problem-solving, but should do so with the view that those cases are exceptions while still seeking to leverage the exceptions for learning.

Application action:

  • How do you approach problems as a leader? How about other leaders in the organization, including your leader?
  • In what ways could you introduce “Wrong Until Right” and “work on rather than in” mindsets?
  • How can you be an example as a leader?
  • Pick one thing to try immediately!


By Mike Russell