Whether a leaderâ€™s mistake is a temporary setback or career killer depends on his or her attitude and approach to its repair.
May 18, 2011
Many leaders are afraid to fail. They worry constantly about not meeting expectations and making a mistake. But fear of failure is a deterrent to growth. Leaders should support their cohorts and avoid being overly critical of procedures. However, the trick of leadership is to also maintain accountability and monitor mistakes.
Any time leaders break new ground or implement innovative technologies, they open up new avenues for mistakes that are inevitable with change. But sticking to a routine doesn’t necessarily decrease the likelihood of errors being made. Oftentimes, bad business habits — the mistakes made when leaders aren’t paying attention — come naturally.
If leaders want business success, they have to look clearly at their mistakes and stop repeating them. They need to work with their employees, not against them, to accomplish this. Even a small mistake can have big consequences, and repeating it can cost an employee his or her job, lose customers and kill the company brand.
“Managers should develop a culture of seeking to prevent mistakes before they happen or before they accumulate to a big one,” said Randall W. Hatcher, president of recruiting, staffing and outsourcing services firm MAU Workforce Solutions and author of The Birth of a New Workforce. “They can do this with good reporting and feedback with their individual reports. They should report key performance indicators to the whole company — business-critical things necessary to be successful that have consequences for everybody in the organization. In terms of feedback, companies make mistakes when they have minimal performance development systems or performance appraisals dedicated toward helping employees develop their skills.”
Sometimes, though, a mistake is not the employee’s fault, and if a leader truly believes he or she shares some of the blame, then the leader should act to change procedures going forward. Without accountability, leaders run into a mental cul-de-sac where possible actions to remediate the situation raise difficult, uncomfortable scenarios because remedies would have made a difference much earlier.
“Anything that isn’t how we expected to be [or] that feels like it will take value from us is viewed as a threat, and the brain reacts defensively to warning signs of danger,” said Peter Demarest, author of Answering the Central Question, adding that most people mistakenly view these situations as time to address weaknesses. “When people try to fix their weaknesses, they inadvertently end up using one weakness to fix another weakness, and they’re not using their strengths. Strengths are what allow leaders to perform their best. Focusing on strengths gives an immediate benefit of better performance.”
According to Demarest, a mistake is a choice or action that didn’t create the value a leader wanted it to create or took value away. To learn from such a mistake, engage better thinking and make better choices, leaders should ask themselves what decisions create the greatest value.
“When we see things as opportunities, we have more reasoning ability,” Demarest said. “Otherwise, we make decisions about the mistake made that might not be as accurate as they could have been had we used our strengths to decipher how to learn from it.”
In order to prevent mistakes, leaders should have a mistake-proofing mindset. “Poka-yoke,” a Japanese term, is any mechanism in a procedure that helps a leader avoid mistakes and prevent defects from occurring in business processes. Constantly looking for creative ways to minimize mistakes pushes employees to rethink the process. It sparks innovation. It’s not about fundamentally changing mindsets and behaviors; it’s about mistake- proofing the personal and interpersonal business processes that matter.
“If you fall into a habit, you’re building mistrust in your organization,” Hatcher said. “Employees see you as inflexible — you respond the same way every time. Hatcher recommends leaders address mistakes as follows: “Alright, we made a mistake, what is the poka-yoke we can put in place to keep this mistake from happening in the future.”
Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.