Mistakes were made. We’ve heard that before – many times. The phrase first made famous by the Nixon administration was later used and re-used by many politicians – Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, to name a few. People generally aren’t fond of admitting their mistakes. I’m not. Businesses are the same. They don’t like to talk about their mistakes certainly not publicly – but not even within company walls. How mistakes are handled within a business says a lot about the people who lead that organization. Are mistakes seen as something to hide, deflect or feel ashamed of?
Like them or not, mistakes are inevitable – even the hardest working, most competent employees will make them. So what’s a company to do? It’s impossible to predict all the possible mistakes that can occur and be prepared for them.
I’ve found that one company’s approach to mistakes is particularly effective. The sales team of this company had a conference call weekly, which included time to discuss “teachable moments.” Typically one or two sales agents volunteered to discuss a mistake and what they learned from it. Discussing the mistake openly eases the stigma that often comes with making a mistake and offers valuable advice to other employees, ideally empowering them to avoid the same error.
This is not a common approach. More often, employees and managers find ways to hide mistakes or put the blame on someone else. Why? People are fearful of the consequences of their mishaps – they could be costly, like a math error, or if the mistake goes public, the company’s image could be hurt – and that too has a cost.
Within a company, a boss who accepts that his or her employees will occasionally make mistakes and has a measured response when they do is a boss people want to work for. That’s smart management because that might encourage a staff to be more open about its mistakes and to view them as something to learn from versus something to hide or be ashamed of. Underlying this approach to mistakes is humility, the belief that I’m not perfect – nor is my staff, nor is the company as a whole. Humility, a quality the corporate world doesn’t talk much about – unlike productivity or competitiveness. Humility seems more a topic for the pulpit. But there is a tie between humility and productivity. Humility can significantly help the morale of an organization. It can foster better rapport between managers and employees, between employees and customers.
Not all mistakes are equal, of course. Some are the result of negligence and should be handled accordingly. I’m not saying let’s just make mistakes, forgive and forget. Instead, use the mistakes to learn and make procedures better so they don’t happen as often. Errors can cost a company, but they’re also an inevitable part of being human. A company that operates in atmosphere of humility, respect and honesty allows its employees to excel at their jobs without the paralyzing fear of making mistakes, and often the result is that fewer errors occur.