Four tips about mistakes

Photo of a blackboard with 1 + 1 = 3 written in white chalkI have a real fear of making mistakes.

I worry about it in relationships, I worried about it as an executive in my corporate life, and I worry about it today as I work to serve my clients.

What if I suggest the wrong thing? What if I screw it up? What if, what if, what if…

There are a lot of corporate cultures out there that make mistakes unsafe. And I think we all know intellectually that this is (ahem!) a mistake. We’re human, every one of us, and that means – we make mistakes!

We also all know intellectually that mistakes are how we learn.

But – and this is important – being able to actually do that – learn from our mistakes – means we have to be willing and open to talking about them.

Many years ago at the company I worked for at the time, I campaigned against the “project post-mortem.” You know, that awful meeting where everyone gets together to discuss everything that went wrong. It’s usually accompanied by more than a little finger-pointing and blame.

This is not what I mean by being willing and open to talk about our mistakes!

Even more years ago, when I was given my very first project to manage and lead, I assembled the team and said, “Look, if there are problems, I want to know. Don’t hide them from me, bring them forward and let’s figure out what to do!” I remember my manager at the time, who was observing, looked quite taken aback. That company was not very forgiving of mistakes.

So, what do you do instead of the post-mortem and instead of burying mistakes?

How do you really, truly, actually create that so-called “safe space”?

Culture is not easy to shift, but you can impact it within your own sphere of influence.

  1. Be honest and open about the mistakes you make. And if that doesn’t feel safe – I get it. If it’s really unsafe, you might want to think about where you’re working…
  2. Look for the opportunities. Sometimes something goes differently than expected and it’s not a mistake, but an improvement. How do you bring that forward?
  3. Don’t just think about how “mistakes are learning opportunities.” For one thing, that’s an awfully trite and eye-rolling statement. Demonstrate it. When someone makes a mistake, ask them what they’ve learned. Not – I hasten to add – in an accusatory way.
  4. And finally, adopt the lovely approach of Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. When a mistake happens, he gleefully cries, “How fascinating!” I can’t think of a better way to make mistakes into truly safe learnings.
    Make a mistake? How fascinating! We all know mistakes are for learning ... but do we actually *act* on that?Click To Tweet

Don’t, by the way, forget to allow yourself to make mistakes (and learn from them). You’re just as human as the rest of us.

Want a better approach than the ghastly “project post-mortem”? Of course you do. Download this: “The Discipline of Reflective Review” – it’s a direct link to the PDF, no email required.