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Mistakes are good. Just don’t repeat them.

Gg Blog

By Graeme Gordon

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable but also more useful than a life spent doing nothing”, said George Bernard Shaw, and I couldn’t agree more.

Now, if you’re a heart surgeon or an airline pilot, I sincerely hope you made all your mistakes whilst training and not when actually on the job. Nonetheless, if you haven’t made a mistake, even in training, then you, and I, should be very, very worried.

Making mistakes is an essential part of learning. Making the same mistake time and time again is a sign of either indifference, lack of care and attention, or stupidity.

Any manager, far from chastising a member of staff for a mistake, should welcome the aberration as a key element in the advancement of all concerned.

Be supportive
If a mistake is made, encourage the staff member to volunteer the fact in a supportive environment. Then, examine why the mistake was made. Was the staff member trying to do something they shouldn’t, or was it an attempt to cut corners or do things too quickly? Or could it be that they have seen a flaw in the present way of doing things and, whilst their option did not work, there may indeed be valid way of making the process more efficient?

Establishing the reason for the gaffe may actually lead to you jointly agreeing the most efficient method of completing the task. Remember, the often-repeated management line of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is not a reason for continuing to repeat the same methodology time and again. Failing to address why a mistake was made is a mistake in itself.

Learn from each other
When given the freedom to question processes that may be inefficient or mistake-prone, staff can often see smarter, better ways of doing things, especially in this era of technological advancements and with Gen Z entering the workforce.

The old dinosaurs among us and even younger managers may well discover we have been missing key tricks and up-to-date practices which will benefit our entire department or organisation.

Be clear
There is, of course, another reason a manager should not get annoyed with a member of their staff making ‘mistakes’. One that is, I regret to say, all too common, and one I am guilty of myself. Did you actually explain clearly and adequately what was required and how to do it?

All too often, we can be so used to a process or action that we forget to go into sufficient detail when explaining it to a newcomer. Always make sure your staff member is aware of all the steps, however obvious or mundane they appear to you. Don’t just accept a “yes” response when you ask if they understand. Some will say yes, or agree with you, out of misplaced desire to please you.

Use language that the person you are taking to will fully understand. Too often we are prone to using words, phrases or initials for things which, to us, are second nature, but to someone else, may be new or easily misunderstood. It is much better to over explain than to assume knowledge.

Remember practice makes perfect
It so happens I have a sign in my office which I picked up in the Smithsonian Air & Space museum. It reads: "Failure is not an option”. It’s the fairly famous quote from Gene Kranz, the Mission controller of Apollo 13.

So, when something unexpectedly went wrong on the mission, the crew were able to fix it thanks to the lessons learnt on the ground at the testing stage. Even at Mission Control, however, there was a lot of trial and error required.

So back to George Bernard Shaw. Be encouraging with staff when they make a mistake. Help them recognise what they have done wrong, why, and how to correct it in future. If a mistake could be costly, think before you ask an inexperienced individual to do it for you. When you delegate a task, ask yourself: Have I explained it fully? Am I asking too much of my staff personally? And if they make the same mistake twice, remember the fault may actually be yours and not theirs.