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'I Hate Mistakes'

June 10, 2013 1:59 PM | James Milliken

People who hate mistakes are dangerous people.

They rarely come right out and say they hate mistakes, but the markers for the attitude are obvious anyway. If you’re a manager, you can’t afford to ignore them.

When mistakes happen – as they inevitably do – the most devoted mistake-haters tend to react ferociously. Not only do they strongly, instantly distance themselves from any association with the problem, but they come down hard on the designated perp. That person can expect blunt and unforgiving condemnation.

It’s an entirely different matter when the mistake is made by this hater himself/herself. If it can’t be ignored or dismissed, there will be a vigorous, campaign to evade the blame. Someone else really is the one who did it, or did something that is the real cause. Or the person who revealed the problem is a bad person, for whatever reason the hater can drag in or manufacture.

This mistake-hating syndrome is not always so open and obvious. Haters sometimes limit themselves to chilly disapproval or simple withdrawal. But, if they really have the conviction, the silent ones are just as immovable as the others.

Whatever the personal style, this person who truly hates mistakes is not capable of understanding or helping a colleague who has made a mistake, or of owning his or her own.

What Are We Talking About?

Let’s be frank about mistakes. They are actions, decisions, words, whatever that turn out to produce undesirable, often unpleasant, results. Mistakes are viewed in endlessly different ways, but the concept always includes the element of responsibility. Somebody did it.

Sometimes mistakes pop like quick little whiplashes that generate momentary discomfort and embarrassment, then subside into the wash of ongoing experience.

Other times they arise massively, unexpectedly. Through some unnoticed, untended accumulating series of factors, they burst upon you with paralyzing force. Back in the day, I suffered loss of executive support on occasion through my inattention. I didn’t notice the judgments that were building up in higher places because of my thoughtless, inappropriate actions and comments.

And there are situations in which you see it coming, as a developing relationship or circumstance is shadowed by threatening clouds. It's surprising how often we don't take this seriously. Take it seriously. Fix it. You don't need unforced errors.

We all make mistakes. We all will continue to make mistakes. We hope they won’t happen, maybe are tempted to scramble away when they do, deny their occurrence or downplay their effects. All of those are transparent and self-defeating. Dumb.

Let’s instead acknowledge we’re human, take the hit and get on with it. Avoidance and evasion are exhausting and demeaning. You don’t fool anyone, and you damage your standing with the people who see you doing it.

There is no way to avoid making mistakes. If you try to avoid mistakes by doing nothing – that’s a mistake. Or would be, if it were possible.

You Can’t Ignore It

As a manager, you have to engage the problem. One mistake-hater can kill a workplace. In the presence of such a person, co-workers find that caution is ever-necessary. It is less dangerous than creativity and innovation.

When you try something new, you’d better be very careful to make sure it will work, or that it isn’t too different from what we’re doing already.

There is a predator on the prowl, and the effect is chilling.

Your personal attitude becomes more inhibited and less enthusiastic. It’s better to just keep your head down. Commitment and contribution tail off as people avoid possible embarrassment and nurse their suppressed anger. Some join in a growing culture of attack and counterattack, sarcasm and negativism.

The instigators are dangerous because this visceral revulsion of theirs doesn’t stop mistakes. It doesn’t even stop the very mistake-hating persons from making mistakes, and it doesn’t cause them to help their co-workers and organizations conduct mistake-free business.

Nor does it necessarily mean they try particularly hard to avoid mistakes. It just means they hate mistakes. Too often, this attitude is a marker for a whole nest of submerged problems.

Your response as a manager is to make sure you detect the phenomenon at its start,

separating it from the healthy give-and-take of organizational discussion and decision-making.

What Do You Do?

If you ascribe overmuch to the open-management concept of free idea exchange, you may miss it. Occasionally, someone will say, “I hate mistakes.” That’s a red flag that cannot be ignored, but it’s rare. Behavior can be seriously destructive without being that obvious.

It is an essential management skill to determine when a staff member’s behavior calls for intervention. Good managers are very sensitive to the difference between respecting individuality and permitting destructive practices.

There are shades of difference in the attitude, short of the true mistake-hatred practitioner. Some people are as demanding of themselves as they are of others, and as publicly critical of themselves. Some are motivated by a fierce devotion to the organization. Some of just really short on relationship skills. No matter what shade it is, it still damages productivity and job satisfaction.

My conviction is that the manager should get involved long before negativism has a chance to infect the group’s collaboration and creativity. In fact, it is your business to devote yourself to getting to know each of your people from the moment you meet him or her. Workstyle problems need to be nipped in the bud.

Those you work with need to know the values that underly your leadership. Relationships must be open and honest. Avoidance is unacceptable, and so is a destructive attitude. The manager understands a person’s tendencies, and provides the right guidance and discipline to direct each contributor toward building and maintaining productive relationships.

Shaw Had It Right

Successful organizations understand that growth means integrating innovation into regular performance – accepting and managing an error rate as high as 40 percent in truly advanced groups.

They know mistakes are inherent in the pursuit of continuous improvement. They learn how to make them with minimal damage to the operation – and maximum payoff in organizational growth and staff development.

Individuals, in their own context, should be encouraged to function in a similar way.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw had a crisp way of putting it: “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful, than a life doing nothing.”

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