One of my staff came to me this week and said, “Alan, I made a mistake.”
I was thrilled. I said, “finally!”
She was puzzled. You may know her; she’s one of those people who almost never makes mistakes. She’s petrified of making them. She works really hard, and puts a lot of pressure on herself. She worries constantly. Healthy? No.
I believe that unless we make some mistakes, we’re not pushing hard enough. “You need to finish the game with 5 fouls,” was what one of my former bosses told me. Not stretching enough to screw up sometimes limits growth. Let’s be clear, though: I’m not talking about carelessness or making the same mistakes again and again.
If you’re not stretching and trying new things, you’re missing valuable opportunities to learn new skills and develop smarter ways of doing things. Until we get used to this reality, i.e. that mistakes are inevitable, we don’t grow. And isn’t it all about growth?
My company holds itself to high standards, but sometimes we fail. We hold each other accountable and we expect a lot. Sometimes we mess up, but we learn and we try to move on quickly. (It’s the ‘moving on’ part where we stumble most often, but that’s another topic for another day).
My point is that mistakes are an important part of life and work. If we don’t push ourselves to take on more, to try new things, and to venture out of our comfort zones, we may lessen the probability of mistakes but we also put limits on our development. S/he who never fails, ultimately fails.
In order for people who fear mistakes to get over their fear and learn to stretch, you need to guarantee a safe environment for them to do so. If you freak out when people make mistakes, no wonder they're scared. Handle mistakes calmly, directly, and constructively. Relate some of your own mistakes. Ask for some follow up, e.g. a plan for preventing similar screw-ups from happening again.
Leadership is about developing others. You may think you're lucky to have a stressed out, burned out perfectionist who struggles day in and day out with insecurities. That's not sustainable. Push hard, accept mistakes, don't freak out, and work constructively to learn from them. It's really that simple.