Nobody’s Perfect!

Nobody’s perfect. While that should not be a big surprise, the real question is this: how does your organization deal with mistakes?

The typical reaction, prevalent in most organizations, is to expect perfection, and then to blame a person when they make a mistake. “Next time you do something that stupid will be your last day at our company.” The underlying assumption is that the person made the mistake on purpose, or through intentional negligence.

However, our experience in the workplace is that most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can under the circumstances – incomplete information, lots of pressure, changing and confusing priorities, insufficient resources, frustrating systems, etc. That environment guarantees that mistakes will be made. So why, then, do we blame the person?

A second possible reaction to a mistake is to apply Dr. Deming’s approach (W. Edwards Deming is the father of the quality movement). Study the system to determine the root cause of the mistake, fix the cause, and the mistake will not happen again. That works fine for non-human systems. But human systems are much more complex, because humans carry emotions about past events with us such that they affect our future decisions and interactions. Thus, we might not be willing to trust a person after a major mess-up, even though we have “fixed” the communication gap that caused the problem.

A healthy organization will have a culture of forgiveness, of letting go of the past and encouraging people to move forward. The person who made the mistake will apologize, and the people who were hurt will accept the person’s apology. They will use this experience to strengthen their bonds, to become a tighter team.

Taking this idea one more step: the most successful organizations ENCOURAGE mistakes, because that is how people and teams learn. They understand that being a learning organization is a major competitive advantage. But to get there, they have to create a culture which handles mistakes in a healthy way. In so doing, they are showing us a path forward which other organizations can adopt.

What has been your experience in how organizations handle mistakes?

Gary Langenwalter

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