How do you feel about mistakes?

Sat, 23 Mar 2013

Most of my blog posts focus on the value people can add when things go well.  But what about when mistakes happen?

When I was younger, I used to think that I wasn't allowed to make mistakes - that getting things wrong meant letting others (and myself) down.  Over the years, I've learned that making mistakes isn't so bad, and fear of making mistakes is far worse.

I find that being willing to make mistakes allows me to stretch and learn.  It allows me to make the most of the challenges that come my way.  By accepting and taking ownership of my mistakes, I find others are more likely to trust and respect me.  When I'm afraid of making mistakes, I'm more likely to hide them, which generally leads to worse outcomes.

Unfortunately, a personal attitude like this only goes so far.  The role you're trying to fill, the company you work for, and the people you work with, all make a difference to how much you can risk mistakes.

Some jobs seem to demand perfect execution every time.  I've never heard anyone tell their surgeon not to worry about making a mistake.  There's an internet meme going round "If you like to learn from your mistakes, don't become a skydiver".  And even many corporate jobs are portrayed as not allowing mistakes. But I don't think I could do them, or recommend them to anyone else.

If companies really want happy employees, they're far better off coming up with ways to protect them from the worst consequences of mistakes, rather than insisting on perfect performance of such roles.  Some companies do a great job of this, making clear that mistakes won't be punished so much as hiding them and refusing to learn from them.  When this message is emphasised, in policy and through actions, it really helps people develop a healthy and productive attitude.

Jim Collins' and Morten Hansen's book Great by Choice explains that successful companies are those that encourage appropriate risks: generally those that have manageable downside (survivable risks) and show success or failure quickly and clearly.  So I'm not encouraging recklessness (and if you tend towards that direction, Naomi Klein has a great talk on TED), but trying to prevent individuals making any mistakes doesn't work well.

Company culture is important, but the people around you also affects whether you feel empowered to take appropriate risks.  Where I've had a manager who knew that my best work would naturally lead to some mistakes, and would support me through them and help me learn and improve, I've felt engaged and been more productive.  In contrast, I've seen colleagues, generally with insecure managers, be warned not to fail - invariably this leads to lower engagement, worse productivity, and hiding mistakes until it is too late to ignore them or do anything about them.  (If you ever hear yourself saying "whatever you do, don't stuff this up", it is helpful to remind yourself that the listener will hear it as "whatever you do, I don't want to find out you've stuffed it up".)

So when considering a role, I try to make sure that I will be working in a company, with colleagues and in a role, that create an environment where mistakes are respected as an important part of the learning process.  That gives me the biggest chance of being engaged and happy, and getting the best work out of me.