Mistakes are our friend

spelling-mistake-1Often I hear successful people reflect on how much they have learned or gained from the mistakes they have made along the way.  Recently I read this quote from Richard Branson “Don’t be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.” Like Richard so many of the great entrepreneurs and leaders of our time, share stories about when they have failed and how they have not only picked themselves up again but have gone on to achieve bigger and better things.

How we choose to respond to these experiences is what matters the most.  Our choices dictate the extent to which we learn from our mistakes, grow or evolve our approach and ultimately find success at the end of the day.  Both as leaders and individuals, mistakes or failings present an opportunity to better understand what drove the outcome and what we need to do differently to create a better result.

While mistakes can be powerful teachers if we allow them to be, avoiding them underlies so many of the decisions people make.  Living life cautiously, even if it means ‘beiging’ out our potential to be awesome is how many of us behave.   As the inspiring Margie Warrell, author of Stop Playing Safe says “… over the course of life you will fail far more from timidity, procrastination and carefulness than you will from just stepping up to the plate and as we say in Australia giving it a bloody go.”

Homer SimpsonPeople can be very hard on themselves and one another when mistakes happen.  It’s little wonder so many of us are fearful of stepping outside of our comfort zone and giving things a go when the consequences of getting it wrong can be so high.  Its not just the threat of losing a job that holds people back; disapproval, loss of respect or trust from others as well as the impacts our mistakes can have all inspire people to be cautious.

Working with a client this week I became aware of a big mistake that had been made by a young man very early in his career (I’ll call him Ben).  Naïve to the consequences of his actions, Ben very enthusiastically shared information that he was in fact expected to keep confidential.  Not only did Ben’s mistake lead to his employer losing a customer it also led to very public exposure of the issue.

My heart went out to Ben who up until this point had been performing very well.  Highly regarded by his employer, not only is Ben very capable, he is also considered mature well beyond his years.  So while it was not entirely surprising that someone at Ben’s stage of life was capable of making the mistake, the fact that it was Ben took his employer by surprise.

Despite being blind-sided and the seriousness of the issue, Ben’s boss (and broader leadership team) responded well to a very difficult situation.  Here are some the things they did that led to a successful outcome:

  • Remained calm avoiding emotion fueled thinking or decisions
  • Investigated the facts including giving Ben the opportunity to explain his actions
  • Reflected on Ben’s employment history particularly relating to his prior conduct
  • Formed a view of the level of naivety versus irresponsibility that contributed to Ben’s actions
  • Gave full and serious consideration to all of their options up to and including termination of Ben’s employment
  • Behaved with respect and sensitivity toward Ben
  • Firmly addressed the inappropriate nature of Ben’s conduct by issuing a formal written warning
  • Outside of the formalized disciplinary process spent time coaching Ben and helping him to understand where he went wrong
  • Reviewed the business systems and processes that made it possible for the mistake to happen in the first place

mistakesWhen I asked the question ‘do you think he will make the same mistake again?’ I received a resounding no.  Yes lawfully they could have simply cut Ben lose and told their client the guilty party had been dismissed.  But instead they chose to remain focused on Ben’s integrity and potential.  They chose to recognise that we are all capable of making mistakes; even the most awesome among us is capable of getting it wrong despite our best intentions.

There is no doubt that our biggest mistakes can be the greatest gifts in our life if we receive them well.  When we choose to embrace our experiences and forgive our imperfections, our mistakes can help us to take the next step in our development.  The next time you or someone around you mucks up, keep calm and seriously reflect on the course of action that will not only protect your business but also allow the person to grow.


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