When Mistakes are OK

May 8 18:00 2007 Kevin Eikenberry Print This Article

We all have our own comfort levels when it comes to risk taking and the potential for making mistakes - especially on the job. However, problem solving and challenging status quo may cause a few mistakes along the way. Here are four times when making mistakes should not be cause for concern.

Tom had some good ideas for improving things at work. He had gathered evidence and background information and was pretty confident his idea would work. But he wouldn’t pull the trigger and try it. He was hesitant because he was afraid of making a mistake.

Larry listened as his neighbor Tom shared his idea – and his hesitancy. Larry saw the world differently. Larry told Tom his approach: “I always ask myself – what is the worst thing that can happen? So what if I make a mistake – it gives me another idea about what does work. That’s what I do on the job – and it seems to work great!”

Tom appreciated - even admired - Larry’s thinking,Guest Posting but he couldn’t see that approach working in his company. He felt the way to success was to avoid mistakes at all costs. Being cautious and careful was clearly the way to a promotion.

We all have our own comfort levels about risk taking and the potential for mistakes, but a big part of how we view mistakes comes not from who we are but from where we work – just like Larry and Tom.

I’m sure you recognize that if we take Tom’s approach to the extreme, nothing ever changes and nothing is ever improved. The larger the repercussions of a mistake (real or perceived), the more risk is involved in trying something new. This leads to people being hesitant to try something new – because they are afraid of the consequences of making a mistake.

To be sure, taking Larry’s approach to the extreme can lead to chaos and very expensive mistakes – frequently.

As with many things we need to strike a balance both for ourselves and in our organizations – a balance where we recognize the risks inherent in mistakes, but we are still willing to try new things and can live with the possible outcomes, even if those outcomes are mistakes.

How do we find this balance?

You will find it by deciding when mistakes are really OK – and when they aren’t. Here are four criteria to help you find that balance individually and as team or organization:

Mistakes are OK if:

They lead to learning. They aren’t repeated.

They are done in pursuit of your goals and objectives.

They don’t violate or conflict with your values.

Let’s look at each of these a bit more closely.

Mistakes are OK if we learn from them. Remember that one of the best opportunities to learn is when we do something wrong – when we make a mistake. If you reduce the opportunities for mistakes you seriously limit your learning opportunities.

Mistakes are OK if they aren’t repeated. So you make a mistake once – learn from it. If it is a repeated mistake, it is less valuable as a learning experience (unless you’re trying to learn the mistake). In fact anything you did learn from the first mistake, likely will be lost with the repeat performance.

Mistakes are OK if they are done in pursuit of your goals and objectives. To achieve any worthy goal or objective different things must be tried. In order to improve anything you must try a new way. New approaches will sometimes cause mistakes. When the mistake is made trying to achieve the agreed upon goals, what could be wrong with it?

Mistakes are OK if they don’t conflict with your values. If your company values safety and the mistake puts you or those around you at a physical risk, then that mistake isn’t advisable. But if no laws are broken and no values are violated, a mistake shouldn’t carry major repercussions.

Applying These Criteria

Think about these criteria collectively not individually. In other words, a mistake could pass three of the criteria but not the fourth. In this case it isn’t OK. But if it meets all four criteria, my advice is to celebrate the person for taking a risk (or congratulate yourself) and keep moving forward.

With these criteria in place people will become more willing to try new things; to take a bit more risk; and to be less tentative. All of these things will lead to some mistakes – but they will also lead to great opportunities for growth and improvement.

Consider how you can apply these criteria for yourself personally and how you can begin to make them a part of your organizational culture. That decision will lead to a few more errors, and open you up to great opportunities for improvement too.

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About Article Author

Kevin Eikenberry
Kevin Eikenberry

Kevin Eikenberry is a leadership expert and the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a learning consulting company that helps Clients reach their potential through a variety of training, consulting and speaking services. To receive your free special report on Unleashing Your Potential go to http://www.kevineikenberry.com/uypw/index.asp or call us at (317) 387-1424 or 888.LEARNER.

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