Mistakes Are Awesome! Really!

February 16, 2015


One universal truth we learn from the time we enter this world is that mistakes are bad. And that's true ... and it isn't.

Ask any employee to complete this sentence:

Mistakes are _ _ _ _ _ _ _.

You are unlikely to hear a positive adjective. And interestingly you won't usually hear "bad". Usually you will hear words along the lines of "embarrassing".

We have a strong association between mistakes and shame in our culture. And shame can slow down a passionate worker. And a passionate worker slowed down detracts from your bottom line for a lot of reasons. The concept that “mistakes are learning opportunities” came from a Jane Nelson parenting book* that I listened to on my way into work one day. And that very day an employee had an emotional collapse over the pressure not to make mistakes. And it set the following ideas into action. The model revolutionized my business, and my life. 

Every workplace I've ever visited has considered mistakes bad, with good reason. The mistakes could lead to financial loss for the company, injury, even death.

So, the mentality that mistakes are bad, is understandable, and not untrue. And a something I would have said "duh" to for most of my career. 

But here's the thing. That mentality, while valid, can actually DRIVE mistakes rather than prevent them. It causes, among other things, defensiveness, shame, unproductive stress, and covering up. It also can lead to turn over and greener people make more mistakes. And all of these things, besides taking people's hearts out of their job (which takes money out of your profits) slow the progress of the organization. They prevent us from learning from mistakes. And THAT causes not only more mistakes, but worse, the SAME mistakes.  And that, for many reasons, gets in the way of Managing Hearts ultimate goal: Increased business success.

 So, the question becomes: We don’t want to deflate or stress people. And we don’t want more mistakes. But we can’t ignore or sugar coat mistakes. So, what do we do instead?

And the answer is:  Create a culture where mistakes are learning opportunities.

And of course, the question to that is: How?

It’s actually pretty easy:

Let's start with some basics we all know, and work from there. 

Q: WHO makes mistakes?

Q: Who stops making mistakes? When?
A: No one. Ever. (You can insert a lame joke about how you never make them here. Very original.)

So, if we know that everyone in the history of humans has made mistakes and it is literally impossible to stop making them; it brings up the question: WHY? 

My answer: It is an evolutionary necessity. We would never learn enough to progress without mistakes.

We didn't figure out how to make fire, wheels, and coffee without a lot of learning. And we would never learn enough to propel ourselves, let alone our species forward, if we didn't make mistakes.

So mistakes big and small, serious, and minor, are here to stay. And to reduce them (and their accompanying stress) as much as possible, we need to learn as much as we can from them.

And our job as leaders is to cultivate a culture where mistakes are not sugar coated but they are embraced as learning opportunities. Once you do this, you’ll watch your errors reduce, your employees wellness improve, your retention and morale improve, and your customer loyalty increase, and all this leads to a business’s ultimate goal: Maximum profitability. AND as a bonus you’ve added some happiness and quality of life to the world. And we all know how that is.

But HOW do you create a culture where mistakes are embraced as learning opportunities?

To create an organization's culture to be one of "Mistakes are Learning Opportunities" you need to teach yourself and your peeps to be very mindful of HOW we mentally and emotionally process mistakes.

Once we know that, it is easy to go down the road of learning and bettering ourselves and our organization from mistakes. You'll be amazed once you are continually mindful of this process the difference it makes in your own energy, mood, and stress levels.

So HOW do we individually and collectively process mistakes?

Mistake is identified. What happens next? I like to think of it as being on a road.

Stop 1.  Big Feelings

The initial reaction to a mistake is almost always an emotional reaction. S#it! What I simply call "Big Feelings" because that is what they call it in parenting books, and I haven’t been able to do any better. Some common ones include:

  • Defensiveness
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Disappointment
  • Helplessness
  • Embarrassment

And this reaction is normal. But step two is the critical fork in the road where your mistake can become a great learning opportunity, or the death of you, and by extension, the organization.


Stop 2: A fork in the road. To Brood or to Process?

This is where the fun begins. Having big feelings after a mistake means your normal. But the next big task is processing through those feelings. Our minds process feelings a little like our bodies process food.

It comes in, we take what we need, and the garbage moves on out. And when processing feelings we have essentially two choices.

We can brood, or we can process.

"Brooding" or "Stewing" is when you think and think and think. The thinking leads to obsessing, the obsessing leads to more thinking and we become increasingly more consumed with the feelings, leading to more emotional exhaustion, and being less present with our families and friends and even co-workers at work. This leads to things like guilt, stress, lack of work/life balance, and job dissatisfaction. But it does not lead to making the mistake right or making less mistakes.

 The sooner you can identify you are brooding, and the sooner you can stop yourself, the better off you'll be.

So, how DO you process feelings?

To process the feelings we continue on the "road":

A: Name your feelings

This sounds corny. But trust me, it is critical. The most critical first step is to name your feelings. You will probably find this is neurologically soothing in and of itself. Once you have named the feelings you are ready to take what you need and move them through. Note: It doesn’t matter if you name them out loud or to yourself but consciously and deliberately naming each thing your feeling is very critical to processing. You’ll get stuck brooding if you try to gloss over this step.

B: Get in a processing "vehicle"

Processing through your feelings usually takes some physical act. And I describe that as your processing "vehicle". This is going to be different for different people. 

Running or walking are common ways to process through feelings (if you find yourself brooding go back and make sure you have named all the feelings). Talking, singing, dancing, zen gardens, driving, showering are also common ways to process through your feelings. Start to make a list of all the vehicles that work for you. Nothing is going to work for everyone and nothing is going to work all the time. So you need lots of options to choose from. Once you start, you'll find they just keep coming to you.  Keep a list in your notepad on your phone.

At this point, thoughtful people will ask the very intelligent question:

How do you know if you are brooding or processing?



Thinking about it less and less Thinking about it more and more
Feeling more at peace Feeling more worked up
Solutions and insights starting to come to you No answers coming to you

 Once you have processed your feelings, you’ll probably feel pretty relaxed and satisfied.

Step 3: Ownership

It is very empowering once you can take ownership of the mistake. It can be a relief and a revelation that the world doesn’t end at this moment. Often the mistake seems smaller and more understandable (brooding tends to put the mistake under a magnifying glass). At that point you can learn from it and put it behind you. Note: This also increases personal security and you'll find almost magically your confidence increases, your personal and work relationships improve, and your energy and happiness increases.

Step 4: Learning!!!!

And then the awesomeness begins. The best way you can make a mistake right is to learn from it. And, once you know better you do better and things get easier. And it makes your next mistake that much easier to tackle and then the learning REALLY takes off.

Simply put procession mistakes puts a few positive, high impact cycles into action:

Mistake -> Learning -> Doing better -> Things getting easier -> Job satisfaction improves -> work life balance improves -> Job performance improves. And then things just keep getting easier!

Learning from a mistake -> Next mistake easier to tackle -> less time/energy spent on Step 1 and 2 and more on 3 and 4 -> Less stress -> More energy -> better performance, better personal relationships, better work relationships. -> stronger organization

 *I'm not sure exactly which of Jane's books I was listening to the day I got this seed of inspiration. I devour her writing. Please visit her site: http://store.positivediscipline.com/books.html

Category: Creating Culture

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