Making mistakes gracefully

If you screw up, then own up and lighten up.

Dess and Picken, in “Changing Roles: Leadership in the 21st Century” (2000) wrote, “The traditional tools and techniques of management are designed, in large measure, to ensure organisational stability, operational efficiency, and predictable performance.  Formal planning processes, centralised decision-making, hierarchical organisation structures, standardised procedures and numbers-oriented control systems are still the rule in most organisations.  As important as these structures and processes are to organisational efficiency, they tend to limit flexibility and create impediments to innovation, creativity and change.  To meet the challenge (of the 21st century environment), organisational leaders must ‘loosen up’ the organisation–stimulating innovation, creativity and responsiveness, and learn to manage continuous adaptation to change–without losing strategic focus or spinning out of control.”

So if leaders are to loosen up their organisations (at all levels, I would presume), it follows that they first need to loosen themselves up.  I’m referring to leader development, growing greater ‘looseness’ and flexibility and openness to novelty and the unexpected.  It also follows that if, in the Knowledge Age, organisations are more reliant on the creation and movement of ideas, information and knowledge, rather than producing widgets, that there will be less predictability and greater novelty.  This, to me, implies more possibility of mistakes, misconceptions and misunderstanding.  Industrial Age management thinking emphasises regularity, but if an organisation’s bottom line is less dependent on the efficiency of machines and more on human innovation and creativity, then the modern manager must develop those capabilities related to dealing with errors, inaccuracies, lapses and blunders.

While cant and hypocrisy have become the coinage of political culture, let authenticity and trust be the major currencies in our organisations and workplaces in the Knowledge Age. Our ruling classes cling firmly to party political dogma, whether fact or evidence prove they are plainly wrong or past their sell-by date.  Rather than engender trust and inspire followership by admitting they don’t have all the answers or they’re getting it wrong and inviting alternative paths, they are bungle and mendacity personified.

As a leader, what better way to show your authenticity than through your response to mistakes?  Your own, that is; because how you respond to your own stuff-ups will be a good indicator of how you view other people’s.  And what better way to generate trust than by being humble in response to your own inaccuracies?

How you respond to other people’s mistakes is going to be tied up with how you view your own mistakes.  Ask yourself these seven questions:

  1. Are they a deadly serious indictment on your character?For goodness sake, take what you do seriously, but take yourself lightly.  Be easy on yourself.  Laugh at yourself, even.  Mistakes do not point to a character flaw, they point to your humanity.  Join the rest of the human race and stay connected to your humour.  This is not to suggest that your mistakes should simply be laughed off as inconsequential or irrelevant, but keeping your sense of humour and lightness will allow you to slough off the negative feelings that we all get, to some degree, when we screw up.  This way, you can move on and learn from what you did.
  2. Are they good ammunition for workplace power games and therefore to be hidden and obfuscated?  If you are never seen to err, how can people possibly get the message that you won’t respond to one of their mistakes with aggression, put-downs or slights.  This simply means that when you do err, you appropriately acknowledge it with humility.  Becoming defensive and trying to gloss over your inaccuracies, or blame others for them, simply makes you look like a petulant teenager and demonstrates that it’s more important to be seen to be right than to be authentic and responsible.
  3. Are they opportunities for learning something new?  If you are open about one of your own stuff-ups and use it as an opportunity to invite feedback and input from others, they will see that workplace errors are not the end of the world, rather they are routes to improvement.  Likelihood is that others will also be more forthcoming about their mistakes because they can be sure that the wider system will benefit from the subsequent corrections.  To quote Sir Ken Robinson, ”If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
  4. Are they indications of ineffectiveness or laziness?  If you are one who has never made a mistake, stop reading now.  Maybe you did take your eye off the ball briefly, maybe you weren’t as attentive as you should have been or perhaps other things caused you to distract yourself.  As long as you admit this with good grace, others will know that it’s not a crime not to be a flawless automaton.  Many years ago, when I was immobilised by not knowing the ‘right way to do it’, a teacher of mine coached me to just do something.  Immobile, I am achieving nothing.  At the very least, if I am moving somewhere, I can correct my course.  Mistakes as a sign of laziness?  Hardly.
  5. Are they proof that you are somehow disengaged from your work and therefore not fully committed?  As George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”  Mistakes are proof that you are participating, you are making an effort and that you are willing to experiment.  That is hardly disengaged.
  6. Are they proof that ordered efficiency and risk-aversion are more valuable than spontaneity and creativity?  Being harsh on yourself when you screw up will let others know that you value precision, accuracy and exactitude above originality and imagination.  In the Knowledge Age, perfection will be harder to come by and of less importance than innovation.  Loosen up for goodness sake.
  7. There isn’t a question seven.  I stuffed up.

Many leaders and managers I speak to live with a fear of being caught out.  They privately wonder if others know about their fallibility and perceived lack of knowledge and experience.  This shows up by their reluctance to be open about their mistakes, lest they be unmasked as the frauds they truly are.  If you are still hiding out, have a look at some of these inspirational quotes, print them off and hang them prominently on your office wall.  Even Jamaican drug smuggler Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke said, “I’m pleading guilty because I am.”

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