What do leaders regret when they are reflecting on their prior decisions and actions? The research of Helen Mary Meldrum from Bentley University (USA) reveals the lessons that leaders have learned from professional disappointments.

Leaders need to make a lot of choices, and every choice has opportunity costs attached to it (otherwise it would not be a choice in the first place). This, however, also means that there is potential for regret inherent in every choice.

45 top managers from life science firms in the USA were interviewed by Helen Mary Meldrum about their “most memorable regrets” related to their management and leadership role.

The road not taken …

The research revealed a surprising result: in retrospect, the managers did not really emotionally care about financial results so much, at least not in terms of having regrets connected to monetary issues.

What the managers did regret, however, was having lost valuable time (a senior manager from Moderna, for example, mentioned that he regrets spending too much time with trying to “believe in the value of incremental benefits” instead of thinking about the bigger picture already at an earlier career stage; other managers regret not having pushed the business forward fast enough or not having worked fast enough to create new drugs that would have saved many peoples’ lives). In retrospect, time was seen by many of the study participants as a particularly prescious asset that should not have been squandered.

Another common type of regret is related to not optimally leading and developing team members: hiring the wrong people, losing good people, or not being able to build the right leadership team.

And finally, there were also regrets about a road not taken, about lost opportunities, for example when a product with high prospects for success was not acquired due to getting “cold feet.”

Confirming prior research results, the author found that “regrets about actions that are not taken can persist longer than those of actions taken.” (Meldrum 2021, p. 87). Many managers started the accounts about their regrets with the words “I wish I had …”

The participants of the study did not only see the emotional costs but also the potential benefits of regrets, however. Regrets can be “a great educator,” as Helen Mary Mendrum writes, as they help leaders to recognize the trade-offs that are inherently involved in choices and put the attention more on the goals that really count in business and life.

Key takeaway for smart leaders

  • Before making a choice, think about what you would regret the most, and take that into consideration when you make your final decision.
  • Looking back on your own career, think about what you regret the most. What can you learn from your regrets for setting the right priorities for future choices?
Research reference: This blogpost is based on the findings of the following research study: Meldrum, H. M. (2021). Reflecting or ruminating: listening to the regrets of life science leaders. International Journal of Organization Theory & Behavior, 24(2), 77-92.

Illustration: © Eva Kobin

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