Befriend mistakes

Turn error into advantage

Coaching
Coaching

We all appreciate the value of mistakes, right? Yes, well, it depends on who makes them. When others stumble and you are in the position of forgiving and teaching a better way, sure, mistakes are cool.

But when you are the one who has messed up and you are nervous about exposure or retribution, you’re probably not quite so enthusiastic. This leads to a split-mind state that toggles between magnanimous and frightened.

Let’s take a closer look at how to turn error into advantage. Although difficult and sometimes acutely uncomfortable, you might as well embrace this because no one in the history of mankind has lived a mistake-free life. This immediately gives you some breathing room.

First, when you make a mistake, look for information that provides a different understanding of what you set out to do. You expected success. You fell short. There are likely a number of reasons, which may include your misunderstanding of the goal, the steps needed to achieve it or the resources available to you. It may be embarrassing to accept this and your automatic reaction may be to blame someone else for not giving you enough information or support. Don’t waste energy there. It won’t help you.

It may be true that you did not get the proper information or resources to achieve the goal. By walking through the error and finding the disconnect, you and your team can identify gaps. If more training or experience is needed, that’s good to know. If the allocated money, time or other resources were inadequate for the desired outcome, that’s good to know, too. In both cases, you can fix what’s wrong.

Misinterpretation and assumptions are a whole other matter. This is often where the problem lies and it will take some courage on your part to spotlight and discuss them. One way to begin is to explain your initial understanding, how you decided to take the steps you did and what outcome you expected as a result. This helps your team examine it’s expectations (assuming the team will be as open and honest as you are) and find places to adjust and align for better results.

If this seems like it puts a lot on you, it does. And it should. It’s your career in the making or on the line. Where you have intransigent people, you have a decision to make about how – or whether – to work with them.

Ultimately, how you choose to proceed builds your reputation. If you refuse to accept any responsibility for mistakes, you will likely be seen as someone who is immature, thin-skinned, careless, arrogant or other unattractive things. Recognizing that you cannot control what others think, you do create impressions.

If, on the other hand, you accept the discomfort that comes with learning from mistakes and sincerely seek to learn and adapt, you will likely be cheered as a strong member of the team whose attitude makes everything run smoother, including analyzing error.

Here’s a truth worth considering: Error + correction = improvement. Error + concealment = impairment.

Your choice in any situation at work, school, home or in the community will feature one or the other approach. By accepting your error and the correction involved, you set yourself up for learning and improvement. By choosing to push off your error on others or try to conceal it, you begin a process of impairment that can be a long-term liability in every aspect of your life. Hiding, spinning or otherwise shading the truth creates bad things. Don’t do it.

Here’s good news: You are strong enough and smart enough to befriend mistakes.   Here’s reassurance: No one – no matter how smart, well-educated or experienced – gets through a day without making a mistake. Think about that. Whether it is a decision to fly through a traffic light as it turns red while someone turning right assumes you will stop, choosing that sinfully rich entrée you know will keep you up half the night or picking up your smartphone when you should be listening, we all err.

Take advantage of every opportunity you have to learn from mistakes. They are truly keys to your success. 

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Susan Marshall
Susan Marshall is an author, speaker, and Founder of Backbone Institute, LLC, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future one person or team at a time. Her work over nearly 30 years with leaders in public and private sector industry, non-profit agencies, and public education is dedicated to building strong leaders who in turn create successful organizations, transform school systems, and develop leaders at all levels.

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