So many corporations allow environments to develop where mistakes are seen as a sign of incompetence and an error of judgement can stop a career in its tracks. As a result, mistakes are hidden or blamed on others. Perhaps counter-intuitively, many very successful organisations view openly sharing and learning from mistakes as being critical to success.
If you’re a new leader, and you’ve just made a mistake, you’ll naturally have a very strong desire to keep it quiet. We know that acknowledging mistakes may make you look foolish, or worse, not competent to fulfil your role. They provide ammunition for others to attack you.
But there are two small reasons why covering up is a greater mistake. And one very large reason – a missed leadership opportunity.
You’ll be found out eventually. That’s life. A cover up will always come back to bite you. Because you didn’t admit to it when it occurred, the consequences escalate. In particular, it will affect the trust your managers (and their managers) have in you, and it will negatively impact your leadership brand among peers and possibly your team. As much as people might be critical of the mistake, by being upfront, they will be impressed by your honesty.
You are setting the leadership standard that others are to follow. The culture of secrecy, self defence, nervousness will have been set. And it’s not one of a high performing team.
Learning from mistakes is a leadership opportunity. Being intently curious about how a mistake occurred, and how you can go about making a better decision next time is a strong indicator of a high performing team leader.
The smart questions include: Why did we make that decision? What assumptions did we make that turned out to be wrong? Could we have tested those assumptions better? When did we know things were not working, and did we act quickly enough? Did we put into place proper early warning systems? Did everyone have permission to challenge the decision?
Mistakes offer you two highly effective performance and positive-culture building opportunities:
Are you constantly looking to do things better, by reviewing projects and activities, and considering what went well and what went poorly? Are we taking into account multiple views, including the views of our customers? A really well run PIR process drives incremental improvements and productivity, raises standards, eliminates repeat mistakes, and usually increases margin and customer satisfaction.
MMT is where a brave leader sets up a training session to share a mistake experience with the team. By way of example, in an early leadership role, I promoted a professional conference to a customer group and lost a great deal of money because I ran an event that I should have cancelled. I did, however, learn some really valuable lessons, including what indicators I should have identified as to whether the conference would be a financial success or not.
Later, when delegating the running of these conferences to a colleague, I turned the conference that failed into a case study. I designed a three part strategy, providing information to my team in stages, and asking them to make decisions. These lessons are remembered by this group who are now working very successfully on events across Asia.
You learn best from your mistakes if you have the courage and honesty to do so. Mistakes are the things that happen before great decisions are made.