This is actually a massive topic that people never seem to cover with any truth, so I’m going to try, although because the topic is massive, I will miss elements of it. I apologize for that in advance.
Are mistakes made at most jobs?
Yes. And oftentimes, it’s virtually every minute that a mistake is made.
OK. So it’s a relatively common thing, then, yes?
It is probably more common than successful project completion at most offices, yes.
We should potentially discuss it more, and more openly, right?
Cool. Do we?
No. What tends to happen is this: There is lots of pie-in-the-sky thought leadership around mistakes and failure, and some guys get paid a lot of money (some women too!) to discuss these things in front of industry gatherings or corporate teams, and usually after 2–3 hours, the industry or team has some new information, but very little will change when they get back to work.
First: we need action leaders, not thought leaders. That’s for another post.
Second: most people do virtue-signal about work and what work means and what work is. To most people, especially men, work is a place where “stuff gets done.” It is a place of grunting and being busy and shipping product and being productive and all that. That is what matters.
The problem is, even though mistakes are common in most workplaces, mistakes get in the way of all that stuff. They impede productivity and the ability to “ship” and look good for your boss, because now something needs to be corrected.
This is the interesting intersection: Mistakes are massively common, yet when they happen, they cause so much frustration and derailment from our perception of what work “is” or “should be” that it creates a ton of emotional (sometimes physical!) tizzy that is hard to recover from.
Who is allowed to tell you that you made a mistake?
Usually your boss. This is how hierarchy works, and we haven’t developed a better system than hierarchy yet to manage large groups of people, so that’s the game.
In more functional organizations, sometimes your peers that you collaborate with can call you on stuff, but usually one of them will go tattle to your boss about you instead, then your boss will come talk to you and say “I’ve heard from your colleagues that…”
Should bosses be the ones judging mistakes?
Broadly, yes. It’s part of why they get paid more.
The problem is that a lot of bosses are (a) not good at their job and (b) detached from the real work — and detached from their employees — so oftentimes, something they think is a “mistake” means “You stepped out of line on process,” even if what you did is a much better way of getting towards “shipping” the product than whatever their way would be. It’s normally a flex on process that bosses call “a mistake.”
There are bigger mistakes, i.e. stupid e-mail subject lines, fucking up with the handling of a big client or a rich person, etc. But most mistakes in offices are “You didn’t follow the process the way I wanted it followed.”
What’s the repercussion of wanting to always be perfect for your boss?
Uh, just off the top of my head?
- Walking on eggshells
- Over-focusing on small elements and not the big picture
- Fear for your job
Oh, fear for your job … while we’re on that one …
The core mistake equation
Some people have nice, expensive houses and all that. Yay for them. And some people have investments or inheritance. Sweet. But most people are making a lot of their week-to-week money from working somehow. So, having the job, or series of jobs, is fairly important to your economic well-being.
Well, if you know anything about how bias works, here’s what happens: An employee comes in and makes a few mistakes here and there because they weren’t taught process, or they’re sloppy, or whatever. These mistakes ingrain themselves in the minds of decision-makers, and within 3–4 weeks, this person is a “bad employee.”
That means this person will eventually get fired, whether it’s an independent event or it happens during a revenue down-cycle. And now that person has less economic security for themselves, largely at the intersection of “This is how we define mistakes” and “This is how the human brain works” with a dash of “We can’t meet our growth goals either.”
So, being perceived as a “mistake person” will hurt your individual economic situation, which means to avoid that you’re going to clutch up and try to be perfect.
At ESPN we called this “gripping.” You worry so much about doing the steps right that you miss the walk-off home run, and then the highlight sucks for all the people watching it. You just gripped to avoid mistakes, and in the end game, you made the biggest mistake of all.
Dun dun dun!
How should managers deal with mistakes?
- Identify it very quickly (no major time passage)
- Walk through what happened
- Ask the employee what they were thinking step-wise
- Model how you think it should be done
- Invite discussion
- Help them (do not micromanage tho) the next time out
- See if it gets better
- Have another discussion about pros/cons
- If they fuck up something three times, now discipline can come in — the first 2–3 should be learning experiences
Now contrast with …
How do managers typically deal with mistakes?
- “I’ll just do it myself!”
- “Argh, Scott! What is this?”
- “I’ll give this to someone with more experience.”
- “That’s not how we do things here.”
- “What were you thinking?”
- “You might be going on a PIP.”
The core difference lies in the managerial behavior, then
Good managers with a degree of compassion, empathy, and discussion can turn a “bad, mistake-prone employee” into a good, or at least serviceable, employee within a few sessions. Most managers? They make it worse, then that employee gets piped out and the cycle begins anew with someone else who might be viewed as mistake-prone.
We all have a fear of failure around what we do, and we all (even if we don’t admit it) understand our economic realities. We need to talk more openly about this stuff and the role that shitty management vs. good management plays within it.