Permission to Fail, Part I

As a business owner it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we know more than the people who work for us and, sometimes, even more than we actually do. Some of us are so convinced of this that we’ll occasionally adopt a parental tone when talking to our people. You know the one I mean—a tone none of us enjoyed hearing from our parents when we were kids and one our employees certainly don’t enjoy hearing from us.

In our quest to be right, sometimes we’ll arrange phrases, or entire conversations around those phrases, so that we come out looking like we’re right instead of wrong.

While most of us have learned the hard way that there’s nothing to be gained (and much to be lost) by saying “I told you so” or “If you had just listened to me in the first place…” finished by any one of an endless list of condescending phrases, we catch ourselves doing it anyway. All to prove, once again, just how all-wise we are.

The negative feelings our people can experience with these comments are amplified when we factor in the added dimensions of gender, age, and cultural differences or the even-more-complicating factors of title or family relationships.

Even when our people aren’t wrong, they certainly can’t be as right as we are. This we demonstrate all too often by supersizing any idea or suggestion someone else has by adding our own two cents.

This emotional minefield can be eliminated by turning our open-door offices into the corporate equivalent of a confessional. A no-fault zone where employees can confess their mistakes, admit their weaknesses, or freely express their fears—all with impunity and without judgement. A place where the worst penance anyone will have to pay is answering the question, “What did you learn from this?”

So, they made a mistake. Excellent! That means they tried something new. It means they risked being wrong, breaking something, losing money, angering someone, looking foolish, or worst of all—bruising their own ego. It’s now our responsibility to make sure they never, ever feel like they’re being judged by us. It’s our responsibility to make sure they know this is all part of the learning process and that the price they’ll pay for these mistakes is called “tuition” to the school of experience.

One of my colleagues, John Monroe, uses a three-word phrase to help the people he works with move beyond these counter-productive emotions. When he hears them starting to express feelings of guilt or embarrassment, or beating themselves up because of a mistake they made, he simply says, “Don’t do that.” In other words, he’s telling them “Don’t beat yourself up over this.” He knows there’s nothing to be gained by carrying negative emotions around, and that it can take longer to recover from the emotional damage these feelings cause than it will to bounce back from the physical damage the mistake made.

No responsible person is going to intentionally take a risk or make a mistake for the purpose of damaging the company that employs them. Yet, to have the luxury to make a mistake and grow from it gives people the freedom to learn and, ultimately, to bring more value to the company … just as most owners have done their entire career.

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