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Leadership Tips from A False Confession

September 15, 2017

In my job, I am fortunate enough to be able to travel and work with many different organizations. For me, travel also generally means being exhausted and having a decent amount of time to watch Netflix on long flights. I recently watched The Confession Tapes docuseries. I would highly recommend it (disclaimer: beware that it is not an “easy watch” nor will it leave you feeling great).

In the series, Netflix brings to light problems with our criminal justice system. One of the most glaring issues that they illustrate is the phenomenon of false confessions. Why would an innocent person ever incriminate themselves or actually confess to a crime they did not commit? Without giving a spoiler, let me just say that there may be several reasons why this could happen - and does - happen. And, more times than not, confessing a crime not committed is the main reason why an otherwise innocent person would get convicted of murder. 

Now, what could a suspect, who is falsely confessing to a murder they did not commit, teach us about leaders and leadership?

Sometimes people just tell us what we want to hear – particularly if we are in a position of power and authority. Maybe it's a stretch, but I think it illustrates a very important point. I think we can all recall a meeting where an executive had a strong opinion that no one wanted to oppose. After the meeting, maybe there was a smaller group of employees who commiserated about what just happened and why it was the wrong decision. In some cases, that group is right, and when they are, we need those individuals to step up and out of their comfort zone DURING the meeting to ensure leaders and executives have the information needed to make the right decision.

leadership tips from a falsly accused convict
So, leaders and executives need to be cognizant of the power difference, and the fact that many people may not actually be giving leadership the information they need. Rather, they are giving leadership the information they think they want to hear. This can lead to executives only communicating what they think is working and not seeing or communicating the entire picture. That holistic, transparent view can be a recipe for disaster that puts the organization at risk. 

So, what can we learn from this?

The moral of the story: If people confess to a murder they didn't commit because they thought it was what the police wanted to hear, then surely during the next executive debrief one might tell the COO something that isn't the whole truth.

Hiring and developing leaders who have a high level of self and social awareness (emotional intelligence) is important in these situations. Leaders who can recognize this is happening are far better equipped to do something about it. This is a skill that not every leader possesses, but it is one that can be measured as part of a selection or development process.

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Paul Glatzhofer Paul Glatzhofer is the VP of Talent Solutions based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI Services LLC. He works primarily with organizations that are implementing global assessment and development systems at the leadership level. Paul’s work includes leadership development, leadership skills training, coaching, leadership and executive selection, turnover and ROI analysis, and ongoing feedback development.