How mistakes can lead to growth, connection and success
I’d arrived at the station half an hour early, having learned my lesson from last time, when I got on the train with only seconds to spare. It had been unnecessarily stressful.
We were so early for the resilience workshop we were delivering that we had time for a cup of tea before we even told them we’d arrived.
I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, luxuriating in having plenty of time. I don’t often have that experience.
I decided to tell reception we’d arrived when it was half an hour before our workshop was due to start.
‘Is Rachel expecting you?’
‘I should hope so!’ I grinned.
‘OK, thank you, please take a seat.’
A couple of minutes later a lady approached us and said, ‘You’re not meant to be here. The away day is in a hotel.’
Uh oh. My heart sank. A flurry of quick-fire thoughts. Disaster. Massive error. I’m sure she told me that and I just forgot. What an idiot. I can’t believe I did this. This looks so unprofessional. They’ll never hire us again. Where is the hotel? Scotland?! What if we miss it completely? Who’s fault is it? Maybe she didn’t tell me. I hope it’s not my fault but I’m almost sure it it. Raj (my business partner) is going to think I’m so incompetent.
It felt like a black cloud of foreboding had descended over me. My body tensed up. My stomach sank.
‘Where is the hotel? How far away is it?’
‘About twenty minutes’
The workshop was now due to start in twenty minutes.
‘This is brilliant, said Raj, with a smile. This is absolutely brilliant. Now we’ve got the perfect opening to our workshop. We’ll tell them what happened, and that we had various options. We could have panicked, we could have blamed each other or we could just do what we needed to do, which was jump in a taxi and get there as soon as possible.’
OK, so I had done a bit of panicking and blaming in my own head already, but Raj wasn’t to know that! Hearing his reaction calmed me right down, and made me see that we could use this as a positive. The fact that he wasn’t criticising me meant that I was less inclined to criticise myself, and instead concentrate on what we needed to do.
In the end, we arrived a few minutes after we were due to start. However, as is often the case with a away days, the previous session had over-run, so in fact we were waiting for 20 minutes after we arrived. We had plenty of time.
We could have spent the whole taxi ride feeling anxious, imagining how embarrassing it was going to be when we arrived late, and it would have been a complete waste of energy.
We did indeed start with the story of arriving at the wrong place, and built an immediate connection with them, partly by having them all laughing, and partly because we were willing to admit we’d made a mistake, that we aren’t perfect — that we are human.
In the feedback, they gave us rave reviews.
The stress relay
When you blame others, you give up your power to change. — Robert Anthony
Those four words ‘I made a mistake’ are incredibly powerful. They show courage, honesty and the willingness to learn from the situation. Unfortunately, in our culture, in business, politics and leadership, they are often perceived as a sign of weakness, so people prefer to deny something happened or blame someone else.
In his career in banking, Raj was often witness to the ‘stress relay’. When a senior manager was stressed about something going wrong, he would take his frustration out on his deputy, who would take it out on his junior, until by the end of the day an intern was being crucified by his testicles for sneezing.
When people don’t admit a mistake, the result is often tension, negativity and a failure to learn from the situation. It feels deeply unpleasant to everyone concerned, and the organisation is harmed more by the way it was dealt with than the mistake itself.
In words of James Altucher:
Honesty is the fastest way to prevent a mistake from turning into a failure.
Catch your teammates when they fall
I was very inspired when I heard a senior oil trader at BP say that, when someone in his team had lost a lot of money through a trade, and was asked to explain himself in front of a committee, he would always ask himself, ‘could I have made that mistake?’
The answer was invariably yes, and on that basis he would defend his team member’s action in front of the committee. In so doing, he built trust, loyalty and reduced his team’s fear of making mistakes, so they performed better.
Next time you mess up…
Have the courage to take responsibility for it, apologise, and do what you can to right it. Remember that to err is human. It doesn’t mean you’re incompetent.
In the words of Theodore Roosevelt:
The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.
In Sunday night’s episode of ‘A very British scandal’, the assassin phones to say that he’s searched all over Dunstable, and he can’t find the person he’s meant to kill.
The man who’s hired him says, ‘Barnstable, he’s in Barnstable, not Dunstable!’
‘Right, I’d better get down to Barnstable then.’
If someone you work with makes a mistake ask yourself ‘could I have done that?’ It might help you to be less hard on them and deal with the situation a lot more constructively.