Doctors bury their mistakes and, according to a 2008 UK survey, often keep quiet about them.
They shouldn’t. The General Medical Council practice guidelines say doctors who err “should offer an apology and explain fully and promptly . . . what has happened”. But the survey of junior doctors found that “errors were normalised, dealt with through teasing, or minimised”. Dead patients would probably have died anyway.
Daniel Sokol, a lawyer and medical ethics lecturer who cited the survey in a BMJ article, says that “admitting a mistake is painfully difficult for any self-respecting professional”. He could have said the same of many business leaders.
Last month, Richard Anderson, Delta Air Lines’ chief executive, accused Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways of receiving state subsidies.
The Gulf carriers have argued that US airlines received government help after 9/11, but Mr Anderson called their riposte a “great irony”, given that the attacks “came from terrorists from the Arabian Peninsula”.
Delta said in defence of its chief executive: “He didn’t mean to suggest the Gulf carriers or their governments are linked to the 9/11 terrorists. We apologise if anyone was offended.”
Of course they were offended. It was hard to read in Mr Anderson’s statement anything other than an association between the airlines or their governments and the attacks.
What would it have cost Mr Anderson to have spoken for himself? He could have said: “Sorry, I went way too far. Of course the airlines had nothing to do with 9/11. I was irritated because they keep saying we got subsidies. There was a one-time payment to airlines in the aftermath of the US airspace closure after 9/11. Delta didn’t receive any loan guarantees.”
All that was in Delta’s statement but because of the flimsy apology, few paid any attention.
HSBC, whose chief executive, Stuart Gulliver, described its Swiss private bank’s role in tax evasion as a “source of shame” did say sorry. He said it in a letter to customers, shareholders and staff and twice before UK parliamentary committees, most recently this week.
But he and other senior HSBC leaders repeatedly stalled when pressed on whether they had asked themselves why so many non-Swiss people had Swiss bank accounts and why they were not more suspicious about customers withdrawing huge amounts in cash. Admittedly, these parliamentary hearings are adversarial and pitiless, with MPs probing for any admission of guilt they can leap on.
But, again, Mr Gulliver would have been no worse off if he had said: “Look, things were different back then. Private banks, and not just ours, took the view that it wasn’t up to us to make sure our customers paid their taxes. It was a matter for them, their tax authorities and their consciences. But, since the financial crisis, everything has changed, and we recognise that.”
HSBC said just that, in more formal terms, in a January update.
One business leader who has no problem detailing his mistakes is Warren Buffett. He regularly does it in his annual letter to shareholders. This year’s marked the golden anniversary of his and Charlie Munger’s control of Berkshire Hathaway so he dredged up 50 years of mistakes.
They included investing in dying textile companies and seeing acquisition “synergies” evaporate.
More recent mistakes included holding on to Tesco shares even though he knew it was likely that the UK retailer’s initial problems were just the first in a series. “You see a cockroach in your kitchen; as the days go by, you meet his relatives,” he wrote.
The reasons Mr Buffett gave for his mistakes were not poor advice, or lapses by his managers, but his own “thumb-sucking”, “childish behaviour” and “I simply was wrong”.
The advantage of pointing out your own errors is not only that it deprives others of the opportunity but that it makes it plain that business is hard, that we make mistakes and that only by examining them can we reduce, but not eliminate, our chances of making them again.
Doctors often fear the legal consequences of admitting errors. Business leaders sometimes do too but, far more often, it is stubborn pride.
If they opened up, they might discover that the sky would not fall or, in the case of HSBC, that there is no point in denying the obvious because it already has.
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