Misteaks Happen: Here’s How to Embrace Them

Learn about the incredible concept of timeboxing, its origins, and how you can implement it to save time, boost efficiency, and enhance your organizational skills.
Ben Kill, Chartered MCIPD

  • There has been an unfortunate shift in management from inspiring and empowering teams to an emphasis on preventing and fixing mistakes.

  • It’s important to learn to accept certain mistakes while adopting training programs that enhance emotional intelligence and leadership skills, foster a growth mindset, etc.

  • Ultimately, leaders should lead by example, reflecting on their mistakes and fostering an environment that supports learning without the fear of imperfection.
There are lots of different ways to define what we, as managers and leaders, actually do. Steve Jobs once said that leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could. Seth Godin once remarked that “leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” 

But if you ask the average manager, they’ll say their day-to-day is largely about solving problems. Indeed, it seems a growing number of leaders feel that preventing and fixing mistakes has become their main priority. So, while it’s all good to talk about spreading ideas and inspiring others, how can we find time for that when we’re constantly putting out fires? 

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A Brief History of Mistakes

The modern world is extremely intolerant of mistakes. Be they a spelling error on Twitter or a missed business opportunity, virtually all public mistakes are now instantly mocked, memed, and parodied, especially when they come from the business world. 

But the mistakes aren’t new. It’s our reaction to them that’s changed. After all, history is full of examples of very public mistakes made by businesses and their leaders. Yet nobody remembers who was in charge when Coca-Cola introduced New Coke, who recommended Nokia not jump into the “smartphone craze,” or which folks at Excite turned down the opportunity to buy Google. 

As managers, our current obsession with preventing mistakes is more about preventing perceived negative consequences because those consequences are now more public. Where we used to see mistakes as springboards for learning and improvement, we now see them as having the power to ruin our perceived “perfect game.” 

Unfortunately, this personalization of mistakes often translates into harsher punishments for the person who made them. And that isn’t particularly healthy. It’s certainly not inspiring people to do things they never thought they could. Nor is it “giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.”

Learning to Embrace and Tolerate Mistakes 

I’m by no means trying to suggest that mistakes don’t have consequences. For the teams at Coca-Cola, Nokia, and Excite, they certainly did. However, the vast majority of mistakes that we and our team members make have little to no long-term consequences. So, how do we break the cycle of managerial overreaction?

Invest in Training and Development

Managers should seek out training programmes that focus on leadership skills, emotional intelligence, and understanding the importance of mistakes in the learning process. These programmes can help us recognize that mistakes are often a natural part of growth and innovation. We should also invest in training our teams so that they have the emotional intelligence to confront mistakes realistically.  
Shift the Team Mindset

Adopting a growth mindset can be crucial to dealing with team member errors. Doing so helps us understand how we can develop skills and abilities through dedication and hard work. A growth mindset also allows us to learn to perceive mistakes as opportunities for learning and improvement rather than as failures.
Learn from Examples 

Observing and learning from other successful leaders who tolerate and even encourage mistakes can be enlightening. This could include reading case studies, seeking out non-traditional business biographies, or finding other examples of mistakes that have led to significant innovations and improvements.
Encouraging Open Communication

When punishments for mistakes are particularly severe, employees often end up hiding them, which only makes things worse. As leaders, we should try to create an environment where team members feel safe to communicate their errors without fear of harsh judgment.  
Practice Reflection 

Nobody’s perfect, so it’s unlikely you got to a leadership position without making a few mistakes of your own. Try to allow yourself to reflect on times when you erred. This will allow you to better analyse your actions and thoughts, understand your biases, and develop more constructive responses.
Try to Set an Example

Most of us agree that managers should lead by example. By openly acknowledging and learning from our own mistakes, we can set a tone that mistakes are a part of the learning process. This can create a more tolerant and understanding culture within the team.  
Balance Accountability with Empathy 

Not all mistakes are created equal, and it’s as important to hold people accountable as it is to encourage learning. But we need to learn how to balance our need for accountability with empathy. Remember that we set the standards – not other team members (and certainly not the internet trolls).  

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The Public is Merciless. We Don’t Have to Be. 

Learning to tolerate – and even embrace – mistakes is not just a managerial skill, but a leadership art that transforms workplaces into nurturing grounds for innovation and growth. Regardless of how rigidly we pursue perfection, mistakes are simply inevitable. And in many cases, they’re also crucial stepping stones to new learning opportunities. The leaders and managers who recognize this not only foster a culture of growth and resilience but also empower their teams to explore, innovate, and excel without the paralyzing fear of imperfection.

Let the internet judge all they want. Our job is to lead. 
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Dealing With Mistakes F.A.Q.

Why do leaders feel that preventing and fixing mistakes has become their main priority?

Leaders often feel that preventing and fixing mistakes is a priority due to the modern world's intolerance of errors, where public mistakes are instantly criticized, creating a pressure to maintain a perceived "perfect game."

What is the historical perspective on mistakes in the business world?

Historically, mistakes were seen as springboards for learning and improvement. Examples include Coca-Cola's introduction of New Coke and Nokia's hesitation to enter the smartphone market, which were public errors but also opportunities for growth.

How can managers break the cycle of overreacting to mistakes?

Managers can break the cycle by investing in training and development that emphasizes leadership skills and the importance of mistakes in the learning process, adopting a growth mindset, and encouraging open communication.

What role does a growth mindset play in managing mistakes?

A growth mindset helps managers and teams perceive mistakes as opportunities for learning and improvement, rather than failures, fostering a culture of development and hard work.

How can leaders encourage open communication about mistakes?

Leaders can create an environment where team members feel safe to communicate their errors without fear of harsh judgment, thus preventing the concealment of mistakes and promoting a constructive approach to problem-solving.

Why is reflection important for leaders in dealing with mistakes?

Reflection allows leaders to analyze their own actions and thoughts, understand biases, and develop more constructive responses to mistakes, fostering personal growth and better management practices.

How can managers set an example regarding mistakes?

Managers can lead by example by openly acknowledging and learning from their own mistakes, setting a tone that mistakes are a part of the learning process and creating a tolerant and understanding team culture.

What is the balance between accountability and empathy in handling mistakes?

Balancing accountability with empathy involves holding people responsible for their actions while also encouraging learning and growth from mistakes, setting standards based on leadership values rather than external pressures.

What is the significance of embracing mistakes in leadership?

Embracing mistakes is crucial for fostering a culture of growth, resilience, and innovation, empowering teams to explore and excel without fear of imperfection, and transforming the workplace into a nurturing ground for development.

How can leaders change the perception of mistakes within their teams?

Leaders can change the perception by demonstrating through actions and policies that mistakes are valuable learning opportunities, not just errors to be avoided, thereby shifting the team's mindset towards growth and continuous improvement.

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