In the book “The World According to Mr. Rogers,” children’s television star Fred Rogers passed along the following story about the value of making mistakes.
An apprentice carpenter applied for a position with a veteran master carpenter. During the interview process he became very aware of the young worker’s pride. He did this perfectly, and that perfectly. Finally the master carpenter asked the apprentice if he had ever made a mistake, to which the young man proudly said no. He thought the job was his.
However, to his surprise, the master carpenter said he would not be hiring the skillful apprentice. The reason: “When you do make a mistake, you won’t know how to fix it.”
His reasoning was shockingly practical. You learn from making real-life mistakes to show people you can handle them.
I completely agree with that hiring decision. It’s okay to make mistakes. But you have to learn from them. If you just keep making the same mistakes, one of two things is happening: You are not paying attention or you just don’t care.
So often, the person who never makes a mistake takes orders from the person who does. The risk-takers tend to become the entrepreneurs and managers. And some of the mistakes they have made are costly and embarrassing. But the lessons they learned taught them how to “fix it,” as Mr. Rogers would say.
Thomas Watson Sr., the founder of IBM, said of mistakes: “Double your rate of failure … failure is a teacher – a harsh one, perhaps, but the best … That’s what I have to do when an idea backfires or a sales program fails. You’ve got to put failure to work for you … you can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because that’s where you will find success. On the far side of failure.”
The person who makes a mistake and then makes an excuse for it is making two mistakes. People respect those who take responsibility for their own errors. Regardless, you will be better off admitting them than spending considerably more energy trying to avoid the subject. If you seize the opportunity to learn what went wrong, you’ll be a lot less likely to make the same mistake again.
In the words of our favorite baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra, “Don’t make the wrong mistakes.”
Embrace mistakes as opportunities to grow. In today’s business climate, people are making split-second decisions. That presents the likelihood for mistakes. But keep in mind that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking any risks. And that could mean you’re not making progress.
“Mistakes are the downside of risk-taking. And it seems as if we’ve become very unwilling to tolerate mistakes. We’re willing to risk failure in our games, in extreme sports, in our competition on TV reality shows,” said my friend William R. Brody, former president of Johns Hopkins University. “But not in our business. Not in our research and development – not in our careers or in our medicines or homes, our schools or our personal lives. As a nation, we’ve become downright pantophobic. We are like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, afraid to do anything. Being risk-averse is hurting our global competitiveness and stagnating our incomes.”
Managers have a specific role in dealing with staff mistakes. You want your staff to make as few mistakes as possible. But workers do need to know when they make mistakes so that they can learn and grow in the workplace.
As a manager, you need to think about the problem and assess how important the mistake is. If the mistake was made out of lack of awareness, let the person know what has happened, and explore whether he or she knows how to prevent it in the future. If the mistake was made out of carelessness, then talk to your employee. Find out if something is distracting him or her. If the worker is feeling overworked, see if you can provide some help.
Remember, when an employee fails, you share the blame, just as you share the credit for your workers’ successes. Make sure that you don’t abdicate your responsibility. Verify that you have communicated clearly so that employees know what you expect. And most importantly, be available to help. Because if you fail your employees, you are making the worst mistake.
Mackay’s Moral: If you don’t learn from your mistakes, there’s no sense making them
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