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What Larussa's Botched Bullpen Call Teaches About Trust

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St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa changing course mid-stream (Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

During Monday night’s World Series game, Tony La Russa, the coach of the St. Louis Cardinals, failed to warm up the right-handed relief pitcher he desperately needed to face the Texas Rangers red-hot right-handed batter, Mike Napoli. Napoli, with the games announcers in complete disbelief at the oversight, took advantage of the mistake, drilling the pitch into right center field for a double. The Texas Rangers went up 4-2 and won the game.

Directly following the game, La Russa blamed the dugout phone, the bullpen coach (indirectly) and the noisy crowd for his failure to warm up the right guy. Within minutes, you could almost hear the simultaneous guffaw of the entire sports world, “It’s the phone’s fault?”. Our collective BS meters went off because in some way, we sensed he was covering something up.

Suddenly, a coach with a glorious 30 year coaching reputation, a man known for his intricate patchwork of relief pitching to pry out of tough situations, had lessened his credibility. What actually happened to cause the mistake is immaterial; how La Russa addressed the blunder is what matters — his credibility was eroded more by his response and less by his mistake.

Look at the foundation of La Russa’s reputation:

  • He’s earned the trust of his players and the respect of fans, opposing coaches and the media over 33 years of successful coaching
  • He ranks 3rd on the all-time winningest coaches list and is the 2nd winningest playoff coach ever
  • Baseball professionals commonly refer to him as one of the smartest, most capable coaches in the game
  • He’s proven time and again that he knows how to maximize his pitching staff to its fullest potential (he just set the record for the most pitcher changes in a World Series)

In other words, his overall capability wasn’t really in question. But when he made the mistake, he tried to cover it with an excuse so as not to look incapable. Capability is commonly mistaken as the primary measure of our professional success. But even the most capable professionals make mistakes and we all know this. On top of that, we are very forgiving beings when people own up to their failures (Bill Clinton’s approval ratings have never been higher).

By covering the pitching snafu with excuses, La Russa damaged our perception of his integrity, which is just as important as capability to reputation and trustworthiness, but harder to quantify and more difficult to regain. Even if the call was someone else’s fault, La Russa is in charge and it happened on his watch. Something stank about his explanation and we could all smell it through the cable wires. What if, instead of blaming the phone or the bullpen coach or the noise of the crowd right out of the gate, he had said this:

“In a coaching career as long as mine, you’re gonna make some mistakes. Some are bigger than others. This one was BIG and I’m going to do everything in my power to make good on it. My bad. Please forgive me.”

Eventually he said something like that, but by then, the talking heads had begun their wording frenzy. Reputation that grows out of capability takes years to destroy (think Brett Favre), but the same reputation can be destroyed in a single act that lacks integrity.

Have you ever forgotten to go to the bullpen when you should have and then made excuses? I sure have. The more quickly we admit our errors, express our regrets and work to overcome the deficit, the less damage we do to our character. In fact, strategic admission of failure can actually increase credibility, because it lets others know that you are both human and honest. While this lesson seems to be lost on politicians and the occasional celebrity, it needn’t be on the rest of us.

There is a highly powerful lesson in his example, especially for leaders:

Own your failures, use them to fuel positive change and allow them to improve your future decisions. You will gain trust, respect and credibility.

John Sileo speaks and writes on building trust and defending against dishonesty. His clients include the Department of Defense, Pfizer, FDIC, Homeland Security, Experian UK and Blue Cross, as well as individual leaders committed to building power and influence from a foundation of trustworthiness. Learn more about his keynote speeches or contact him directly for Trust Coaching on 800.258.8076.

The Fear of Honesty

We’ve gone soft; we fear honesty. I think we even fear being honest with people more than we fear people being honest with us. Honesty has become synonymous with ugly confrontation, rather than just being, well, honesty.

Yesterday, a good friend emailed me a two sentence note reminding me that I hadn’t done something that I’d promised I would do. What I had promised is immaterial to this post, but that I had promised to do it, and then failed, is very important. I gave my word to a good friend, and then ignored my promise. And he had the guts to remind me. In fact, he’s laughing at me right now that I even consider his reminder to be a big deal, because to him it would be phony not to remind me. That’s who he is. And he’s a better friend for it. And in no way could what he did be called confrontational. Direct, yes. Honest, yes.

Here’s the striking part that makes me uncomfortable — I only have THREE friends (in addition to my wife, who is my honesty compass) who have the backbone to call me on something like this. And that makes me sad, because I have many friends, and it means that most of the time I’m probably not hearing the whole truth, maybe just a watered down version of what they think I want to hear. And who knows, maybe that is what I want to hear. Worse yet, I’m not sure I would have confronted me like my friend did (even though it was something minor), which means that I’m no better that those I’m condemning as soft.

But I’m condemning you (us) anyway. I spend my entire workday in the world of fraud; how people are conning each other out of money, mostly. I am surrounded by stories of the wickedly, cleverly dishonest. And I have to say, by shutting up and putting up with them, we enable them. Let me share an example.

As you’ll see from previous posts, I’m constantly being asked for my opinion on the negative impact of social networking (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) in the workplace, especially by the CEOs of companies. When people ask me about this, they are usually asking because they want an answer from a privacy perspective: how information is leaking out of their company through social media. Which it is, and I share that with them. But they ask with such urgency – like they are trying to find a reason to crack down on its use.

But the more honest answer that I rarely mention, an answer they themselves sense and are unwilling to confront, at least person to person, is that the real damage of social networking on the workplace comes from the fact that we are spending our work day in personal conversations (enabled by social media) that seriously and negatively impact our productivity. We say that we tweet for business reasons, but a lion’s share of our surfing is personal. How often are we reminded that we’re not getting paid to get back in touch with high-school buddies. Now, I might write it in an article, but to actually say it to someone’s face (the offender) is an entirely different gravity of backbone.

Do we fear offending people, or not being liked? Are we afraid we might get fired, or lose a friendship? I don’t think so.

I think we have unknowingly created a culture that punishes people for honesty:

  • We become social outcasts because we let a neighbor know that their kid was mis-behaving in our home (which he was) and we don’t ask them to stop negatively spinning the story to the rest of our neighbors. And we defend our kid, even when we know that they were mis-behaving.
  • We don’t listen to the news unless it is slathered and tainted with our own self-centered political perspective (do you really think you are getting the most honest version of the story from Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann?). We don’t want the actual news, we want yummy confirmation about our vision of how the world should be. In the media, honesty is just too boring. If you don’t have an outrageously provocative opinion (by definition, dishonest), it just won’t sell. How many of us watch The Lehrer Report on PBS? How many of us just dismissed that reference to impartiality based on our political views?
  • We ask for 360 Feedback at work and once it is given, go home and complain about how “off” our boss was. But we never tell our boss, we never have the conversation.

The net result of Fearing Honesty is that we become dishonest with ourselves. We drink the Cool-aid, so to speak. We know that no investment returns 15% year, even in bad years, but we continue to give our money to the Bernie Madoffs of the world, hoping. We tell our spouses that the relationship is strong because we can’t bare to tell them the truth. Instead of being direct, we step out on them. We know we need to change, but not as much as the next guy.

Even if you’ve made it this far in the article, you probably won’t see the world differently when you look up from the screen. I’m wondering if I will. If so, it will be thanks to my friend.