We are all familiar with the phrase, “to err is human.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we can all bear personal witness to the truth of this statement. That said, one of the most important leadership responsibilities is to help those we lead to recognize and overcome their mistakes. Doing this, however, is more challenging than one might think. You see, it is human nature to deal with our mistakes in several dysfunctional ways:
• We hide our errors in the hope that they will never be discovered—or perhaps that they will simply go away.
• We blame others for our mistakes in an effort to deflect criticism from ourselves.
• We blame circumstances, thereby excusing ourselves from responsibility for our miscues.
Each of these dysfunctional responses reflects a fear that mistakes will result in reprimand, loss of status, or other discipline. Over time, this not only leads to mediocrity in work performed, but also erodes the competency and confidence of your team.
Knowing that virtually all of us are naturally inclined to greet our mistakes in less than productive ways, leaders are faced with the challenge of establishing a mistake-tolerant environment that will lead subordinates to be comfortable with admitting mistakes when they occur—and using them as a catalyst for change and improvement. That means we must build a high level of trust that leader’ responses to problems and mistakes will be unemotional and respectful. We must establish that the worst mistake is the one that remains unidentified—and do all we can to make it safe to bring errors to the surface.
A leader who desires to establish this safe environment must send a clear message (1) that mistakes are inevitable, (2) that every mistake is a learning opportunity, (3) that perfection, while unattainable, can be approached over time as mistakes are identified and resolved, and (4) that those who are actively engaged in identifying and resolving mistakes (especially their own) are held in high esteem. Notice how different this is than creating an atmosphere where mistakes are not to be tolerated, where those who make mistakes are labeled as stupid, where perfection is implied to be the current state, and where those who admit mistakes are berated or punished.
Enlightened leaders realize that mistakes actually represent opportunities for improvement and that they should be embraced as such. The fact is, mistakes will happen—and they should be exposed, learned from, and fixed. And such fixes should be as permanent as possible to avoid repetitious errors. None of us live a mistake-free life—and that’s a very good thing, because no one should be denied the incredible learning that comes from admitting our errors and overcoming them. As leaders, we should recognize the incredibly important role we play in facilitating that learning process!