We live in a culture where mistakes are something to be avoided at all costs. Often, when we make an error, it creates feelings of embarrassment, frustration or even fear, especially when it happens at work. There’s nothing like a missed deadline or even an unfortunate typo to cause anxiety, especially when you work for a perfectionist who has little or no tolerance for human error.
While there are certainly places where there is no margin for error, such as in the finance department, where a single transposed digit can change everything, for the rest of us, a mistake isn’t the end of the world. In fact, when it’s acknowledged, corrected and analyzed, a mistake can actually help improve performance and increase innovation. So why do so many managers expect perfection?
Mistake prevention isn’t job #1.
As a leader, you understand that everyone is looking to you for guidance and that your superiors are looking to your department for performance. You know that if your department doesn’t meet its goals and live up to standards, then you aren’t proving your value as a leader -- and that could lead to serious consequences for your career.
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If you are like many leaders, you take this responsibility seriously -- so seriously, in fact, that you make it your personal mission to prevent any of your team members from making mistakes. It’s your job to save people from themselves and ensure that they do everything correctly, right? Wrong. That type of approach to leadership only leads to micro-management, a failure to delegate and a sense of fear and lack of innovation within your team. Who wants to take a chance on doing something creative or risky when failure will lead to disappointment and a lecture from the boss?
It’s important for leaders to realize that instead of discouraging mistakes and boxing employees in in such a way that they are reluctant to take risks, they should actually be encouraging and celebrating mistakes. In fact, management guru Peter Drucker actually once suggested that companies seek out people who never make mistakes and fire them, because if someone never makes a mistake, he or she never does anything interesting. Whether or not you follow Drucker’s advice, the idea is the same: Telling employees that they cannot fail and punishing mistakes is not going to move your business forward.
Why mistakes are important.
Obviously, you don’t want to create a free-for-all environment where people are careless with their work and there is never any accountability. However, by supporting a culture that doesn’t penalize people for the occasional error, you can enjoy several key benefits:
1. A more honest and open environment.
When mistakes aren’t a big deal, your employees will spend less time trying to cover them up and more time fixing them. It’s much easier to say “I screwed up, here’s why, and here’s how I plan to fix it,” than it is to scramble to cover the mistake and allows for a more trustworthy and open environment.
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2. A more positive learning culture.
Allowing mistakes gives your employees the freedom to admit what they don’t know -- and then find ways to improve their knowledge. As a leader, you could help create formal training and development programs that allow employees to improve themselves and your company. Instead of trying to fake their way through tasks and hoping for the best, being able to admit shortcomings and getting support to develop and grow helps improve employee satisfaction and loyalty, and improves your workforce.
3. A more innovative team.
The most common reason that people aren’t innovative or creative is that they fear failure. Give your team space to fail, and watch the innovative ideas start to flow.
4. Fewer mistakes.
When you are worried about making a mistake, what do you do? If you’re like most people, you are so focused on being perfect that you overlook small things, or get so nervous that you make more mistakes. Allowing a margin for error helps reduce that stress and reduces the likelihood of mistakes happening in the first place, because your team isn’t under pressure to be perfect.
5. A happier team.
Finally, removing the punitive aspect of making a mistake helps improve employee satisfaction. You’ll enjoy a more positive relationship with your team, and see more collaboration and trust.
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Again, there are times when there is no margin for error, and perfection needs to be a priority. Those times are few and far between, though and creating a culture that allows for experimentation, exploration and yes -- errors, is going to make you a stronger leader, and more than likely, help you reach your goals and prove your value to the company.