dealing with mistakes…..

mistakesWhoever said they never made a mistake perhaps never tried anything! While success at work is often an outcome of how well you do your job, how you handle failure sets you apart and furthers career progression.

Some of the most powerful lessons in life are learned from our failures or in difficult times. After having tried and made umpteen mistakes, Edison famously said “I have not failed, I have just discovered 10,000 ways that do not work”. And when his factory was gutted by fire with much of the work still inside, he said “there is much value in disaster. All our mistakes are burnt and we can start anew”. While this is a matter of attitude, the learning that comes thru mistakes can hardly be under estimated.

Let’s face it – mistakes will forever be a part and parcel of our personal and professional lives. The key question to reflect upon is – what message does your organisation convey in the way it responds to mistakes. What culture do you create with your team by your attitude to mistakes made by colleagues. And also the lessons you can learn from your own mistakes and difficult times.

Let me narrate a small story of Thomas Watson Jr, a great leader and CEO of IBM between 1956 and 1971. He once summoned to his office a young executive who made some bad decisions costing the company a few million dollars. Upon entering the office the executive said ” I suppose after that set of mistakes, you will want to fire me”. Watson replied “not at all my friend, we just spent those dollars educating you”. A different matter that a subsequent innovation more than made up for those losses – but clearly it is impossible to miss the point.

Fear of consequences of mistakes will surely stifle creativity and the desire to innovate. Or even the drive to make things happen. Leadership is required to perpetuate an environment of tolerance and acceptance which then leads to the development of a free spirit. That has such tremendously positive results for organisations over the mid to long term.

Here are some tips to convert the mistakes that we all inevitably make to our advantage :

– planning ahead is such a good insurance – acknowledgement that things may go wrong and hence being prepared for them to the extent possible.

– taking responsibility, even when the reasons may not be directly attributable to you. This is a great one for creating team bonding and loyalty. Everyone appreciates people with a high degree of ownership and accountability. You are not a failure until you start blaming someone else!

– make the environment light with a touch of humour. Have a sense of perspective – focus on what you want to achieve and do not dwell on the mistakes. Dwelling reinforces mistakes whereas moving on gets you positive outcomes. Just keep moving – that is the best alternative

Remember that the greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.

And a word of caution – making the same ones multiple times, over and over again…..will not be such a good idea!

best wishes


5 thoughts on “dealing with mistakes…..

  1. Very true ! As somebody right said “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”

  2. Everyone makes mistakes. Many people keep making the same mistakes again and again.

    Some people find out ways of doing things differently so that the mistake is not repeated again.
    These are the people who have learnt from their mistakes and moved on. That’s the way we all should be.

  3. Rajiv,

    Good piece. the key thing as you said, is how we deal with people who make mistakes. here is a story you will love.

    Regards, Nash


    The Whale Story
    By Charles and Carla Coonradt

    Have you ever wondered how the whale and porpoise trainers at Sea World get Shamu, the 19,000-pound whale, to jump 22 feet out of the water and perform tricks? They get that whale to go over a rope farther out of the water than most of us can imagine. This is a great challenge – as great as the ones you and I face as parents, coaches or managers.

    Can you imagine the typical American managerial approach to this situation?
    The first thing we would do would be to get that rope right up there at 22 feet – no sense celebrating shortcomings. We call that goal-setting, or strategic planning.

    With the goal clearly defined, we now have to figure out a way to motivate the whale. So we take a bucket of fish and put it right above that 22-foot rope – don’t pay the whale unless it performs. Then we have to give direction. We lean over from our nice high and dry perch as say, “Jump, whale!”

    And the whale stays right where it is.

    So how do the trainers at Sea World do it? Their number one priority is to reinforce the behavior that they want repeated – in this case, to get the whale or porpoise to go over the rope. They influence the environment every way they can so that it supports the principle of making sure that the whale can’t fail. They start with the rope below the surface of the water, in a position where the whale can’t help but do what’s expected of it. Every time the whale goes over the rope, it gets positive reinforcement. It gets fed fish, patted, played with, and most important, it gets that reinforcement.

    But what happens when the whale goes under the rope? Nothing – no electric shock, no constructive criticism, no developmental feedback and no warnings in the personnel file. Whales are taught that their negative behavior will not be acknowledged.

    Positive reinforcement is the cornerstone of that simple principle that produces such spectacular results. And as the whale begins to go over the rope more often than under, the trainers begin to raise the rope. It must be raised slowly enough so that the whale doesn’t starve, either physically or emotionally.

    The simple lesson to be learned from the whale trainers is to over-celebrate. Make a big deal out of the good and little stuff that we want consistently. Secondly, under-criticize. People know when they screw up. What they need is help. If we under-criticize, punish and discipline less than is expected, people will not forget the event and usually will not repeat it.

    In my opinion, most successful businesses today are doing things right more than 95 percent of the time. Yet what do we spend the majority of our time giving feedback on? That’s right – the 2, 3, 4, maybe even 5 percent of things that we don’t want repeated and didn’t want to happen in the first place.

    We need to set up the circumstances so that people can’t fail.
    Over-celebrate, under-criticize . . . and know how far to raise the rope.

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