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We All Make Mistakes – But Are They Good Or Bad Mistakes?

June 25, 2021 - By Angela Donnelly, Director, Legitimate Leadership Canada, Bachelor of Commerce: Management

Mistake. The word invokes conflicting reactions in me: mostly positive sentiments synonymous with courage, learning and growth; but also, sometimes, outright contempt.

All mistakes might offer the opportunity to learn, but nonetheless there are good mistakes and bad mistakes – and the difference has implications for managing performance in organisations.

In consulting, there is much to be gained from examining the appropriate use of the word “mistake” in different contexts. Because this is the difference between workplace conditions that unleash creativity and innovation, and those where people wallow in a quagmire of fear and inertia.

For leaders, this is the difference between inviting human excellence and sustaining mediocrity and outright malevolence.

Google has plenty to boost one’s self-esteem if one has made a mistake. For instance, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new” (Albert Einstein) and “You can’t learn anything from being perfect” (Adam Osborne).

These quotes relate to the kinds of mistakes that are necessary (in context of good leadership) to cultivate environments of autonomy, accountability and excellence.

Creativity and innovation will not thrive in environments crippled by petty controls and micro-management. People need to be empowered to push envelopes, in the knowledge that when they make mistakes, they will get the support they need to navigate, grow and learn from them. This is about creating a psychological safety net where individuals don’t only avoid mistakes but are rather encouraged to make them from time to time.

A great example of this is a story by Peter E. Greulich: IBM had survived The Great Depression. Gambling on a post war boom, Watson Sr. had maintained IBM’s employment levels by increasing inventories when there was little demand. Excess machinery and parts crowded basements and filled every nook-and-cranny of Endicott’s warehouses. Some on the board of directors, because of this, were lobbying to remove Watson as IBM’s President. He needed these inventories sold. A very large government bid, approaching a million dollars, was on the table. The IBM Corporation—no, Thomas J. Watson Sr.—needed every deal. Unfortunately, the salesman failed. IBM lost the bid. That day, the sales rep showed up at Mr. Watson’s office. He sat down and rested an envelope with his resignation on the CEO’s desk. Without looking, Mr. Watson knew what it was. He was expecting it. He asked, “What happened?” The sales rep outlined every step of the deal. He highlighted where mistakes had been made and what he could have done differently. Finally he said, “Thank you, Mr. Watson, for giving me a chance to explain. I know we needed this deal. I know what it meant to us.” He rose to leave. Tom Watson met him at the door, looked him in the eye and handed the envelope back to him saying, “Why would I accept this when I have just invested one million dollars in your education?”

We can either perceive mistakes as personal failings, or as inherent to personal growth. The latter demands a willingness to take accountability in a healthy manner – through recognition of, and taking responsibility for, one’s actions. The alternative is the “shame, blame or deny” response, from which the only learnings are likely to be “what to do better next time to ensure a more favourable outcome for oneself.”

The mistakes that individuals need to make from time to time in order to learn and to grow are similar to the mistakes that are considered character-building in teenage and adolescent years.

But eventually the teenager matures and the adult encounters situations that invite him to take responsibility, real responsibility. And in this, his engagement with the world becomes a little less about him, and little more about others. There is nothing like a healthy dose of responsibility to get over one’s narcissistic self.

Etsko Schuitema proposes that this process of maturation is consistent with the process of maturing our intent from getting to giving. This is a shift that happens in the fullness of time from birth to death, when we mature our intent (deeper motivation) from unconditional getting, to unconditional giving. This requires transactional correctness in our engagement with the world because it demands a preparedness to rise above our own self-interest and to do what is right, rather than what’s expedient – in each moment we face. It calls for generosity and courage and a move away from the need to control outcomes, to an acknowledgement of the potential of the moment we are in. It is no longer about our expectations and needs, but more about the appropriate contribution we can make, in that moment.

So perhaps we can agree on this: mistakes are a good, appropriate and necessary part of life to enable learning and personal growth. They also require a sense of ownership and accountability.

But when might a “mistake” be less acceptable? When might this so called ownership and accountability just be a guise for saving one’s ass?

Wading into the saving-ones-ass territory also highlights the intent underlying putting ones ass on the line in the first place. This is a requirement for enabling bold and courageous engagement with the world. When we are unwilling to do this, we stay stuck in fear and inertia, characterised by analysis paralysis, procrastination and vacillation – not good for any individual, or any organisation, seeking agility, creativity and innovation.

Improving decision-making requires the willingness to put oneself on the line for outcomes.

But if we cry “mistake” we need to consider our reasons for doing what we did, in the first place. Then we can differentiate good mistakes, from bad mistakes.

If our actions arose from an intent to get, or to serve the self, then crying “mistake” is shameless arrogance. You went into something, based on your assumptions regarding a certain outcome you wanted for yourself. This outcome unexpectedly (not mistakenly) resulted in you finding yourself disadvantaged.

So while there is always growth and learning to be found in the unfamiliar and unknown, the question to ask is “what is the lesson?” Is it to be more devious, self-serving and manipulative in future – to better your chances of achieving the outcomes you desire? Or is your lesson one of self-awareness and humility, the stark realisation of what a shit you really are, and a wilful intent to do something about it?

Italian politician and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli coined the phrase “the end justifies the means.” In other words, effectiveness is more important than morality.

He proposed that politics is amoral and that any means, however unscrupulous, can justifiably be used in achieving political power.

It is useful to recognise Machiavellism when observing the shameless empty apologies for mistakes by politicians. But we should also consider our own propensity for such self-serving behaviour.

Human beings are wired for self-preservation. However, what separates us from other species is the cognitive ability of choice. We get to choose how we respond in (almost) every moment that we face. When we engage the world based on what we want, our self-interest, we become susceptible to making poor decisions with attendant justification that the end justifies the means. We rationalise our behaviour to others but also ourselves.

It takes deliberate effort to mature our intent from getting to giving.

We have the choice to do what’s right or what’s expedient. In choosing the former, we use the word mistake with humility and integrity. Our motivations are not based on self-interest. However, when we choose what’s convenient and practical although possibly improper or immoral, then we should not dignify the this with the word “mistake” – such an empowering word, so filled with personal growth and possibility.

I don’t know what word to propose instead. But I would encourage leaders to use these moments to reflect on how this might translate into managing performance in organisations. There needs to be a very clear distinction made between an individual getting it wrong, and wilful non-compliance.

When we recognise this, and become consistent in how we manage each appropriately, we invite human excellence. We foster the conditions where individuals become autonomous, accountable and courageous – where they are empowered to achieve personal mastery. In doing this, excellence takes hold and mediocrity slinks out the back door.

Angela Donnelly
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