I was startled last week listening to a coach interview when the coach uttered words no coach or leader should ever say, “mistakes were made." I cannot think of a worse statement by anyone in authority. The phrase is designed to hide responsibility for an action and make it even harder to isolate and rectify the problems. Mistakes were made is one of the worst ethical assessments a leader can make.
I don’t know who invented the passive voice in English but you could not ask for a better way to get people off the hook. The key to passive voice is that the object—a mistake becomes the subject, and the verb moves to past passive construction. Notice the key-missing ingredient—no subject exists, the actor, the doer disappears. Mistakes were made is a favorite locution of corporate and political leaders on the spot.
Bureaucracies love the passive voice. The passive voice hides responsibility and authorship. Any institution that creates products that emerge from committees moves to the passive voice that provides wide plausible deniability for everyone associated with the process. The organization can then hide responsibility or better yet disseminate it over so many people as to make it meaningless. This in turn permits people to go about doing crazy or failed or horrible things with relatively clear consciences. It also means no one has an incentive to learn or get better because no one internalizes responsibility for the outcome and no one is held responsible for the outcome. Accepting responsibility impels learning and growth.
The ethics of the phrase begins with its construction where no one accepts responsibility for the actions done. The speaker does not accept responsibility nor does the speaker accuse anyone else of making the mistakes. The phrase represents a completely neutered moral claim—I am not responsible and I am not claiming anyone else is responsible. It is hard to imagine a more worthless phrase except to escape responsibility or to exonerate oneself.
Beyond the responsibility denying construction, the word mistakes compounds the ethical elusiveness of the claim. Traditionally when we make mistakes, even when we accept responsibility, we basically state that we did not intend to do this badly or do this harm.
A mistake is a mitigated ethical category where one admits harm was done or failure to achieve a good. A person can admit responsibility for it—although not in this construction—but the person denies that he or she intended to harm or not achieve the goal. A mistake is not done on purpose.
This is not the place to discuss in detail, but mistakes can sometimes occur because of negligence. More often, however, people make mistakes because they misread or misdiagnose a situation. A person may see the situation unfolding but miss a critical point and diagnose it wrongly. Or a person might simple respond a little too quickly too slowly after the diagnosis. Sometimes people just go blank, the mind paralyzes and no obvious pattern or meaning occurs to them. They react rather than initiate action. I could go with the myriad ways we as well intentioned people may make mistakes such as when facing surprise they were not trained for. People might react to planned deception and not see through it. All of these actions do not involve intended harm or collapse of a plan.
The language matters deeply here because patterns of language create patterns of expectations and norms. Coaches, players, and leaders who rely on the passive voice teach the wrong lesson about not accepting and claiming responsibility for actions. Claiming responsibility involves the motivation to get better and learn from mistakes.
I can understand a coach, player or leader trying to avoid calling out a colleague in a public setting. The coach I heard may know damn well who made the mistake. Often coaches know more because as spectators we only see the person who looks like he or she made the mistake, The expert, however, knows that the perceived “goat” is actually merely the player left in the lurch when others failed to follow through on a scheme or misread a pattern. The person who appears to make a mistake in fact represents the end game of a cascade of mistakes from the whole team.
So mistakes were made might be used to protect a team/player in public, but it would be much easier to use a collective “we” made mistakes or “our team” made mistakes. Leaders emphasize and isolate the collective endeavor and remind everyone, coaches included, that the team’s decisions and actions made this possible.
When my kids were growing up we had a song we loved to sing called “Mr. Nobody.” The key refrain was that whenever something bad happened and a parent would ask, “who did this?” The answer, “Mr. Nobody did it.
Mistakes were made suggests a habit of thought that veers from accepting, isolating and speaking in private and public about common accountability and responsibility.
Speech habits can shape expectations and shape our very thoughts. If we speak one way enough, then we actually start to think that way. Worse, if we hold responsibility, then those for whom we set expectations start to internalize them
Good leaders, good coaches, good players avoid the passive voice; they do not hide, deny or duck responsibility. Even if they have not yet figured out who is responsible or what went wrong, they know it went wrong. A good leader ensures people accetp responsibly and work to make sure everyone learns from their mistakes.