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  • John R. Durant

Hire Yourself as Chief Mistake Officer

We must set the example not only of how to avoid mistakes, errors, and failures but also of how to deal with them. Although imperfect, our diligent attempts to do so will have a significant impact on the character, ethos, and behaviors of our teams.


One of my friends, a product leader with a talented team, recently said, “I wish my people would take more risks. They’re so afraid of being wrong that they may never be right.” Despite his passionate efforts to create a fault-tolerant culture, his team members were still playing it safe. I asked, “How well are modeling the behavior you want from the team?” He admitted that he hadn’t been very intentional about that. As leaders, we may claim to want a culture tolerant of failure, but our example and actions may be sending a different message. Each of us can hire ourselves as a Chief Mistake Officer and show our teams how to take risks, recover from setbacks, and triumphantly deal with the fallout from mistakes and errors.

Chief Mistake Officers rebound from failure stronger than ever
Set the example for how to handle failure

Too strict, too lenient, too much flattery

Sadly, we’ve all seen managers and executives who catastrophically undermine the culture they pretend to espouse. For example, some sow harshness and severity. They reap a horrible and bitter harvest. If people are walloped, belittled, and demeaned when they make any mistakes, they’ll inevitably obscure their failures and redirect blame. A manager I know who worked in a relentlessly punitive environment told me he that he survived by, “hiding the daily bad news and revealing it all at the end of the month. That way I only get one brutal beating.” What a pity.


However, being too permissive can be equally destructive. When people know that their missteps have little or no impact on retaining their job, getting promoted, or receiving a raise, they stop being curious about improvement. The same is true when people are praised for the wrong reasons or in the wrong ways, such as when they’re labeled “rock stars” and “A-players.” Such commendation can lead them to feel helpless and defeated when they inevitably make a mistake that contradicts their “rock star” status. Harshness, permissiveness, and misguided labeling creates helplessness, fosters mistrust, and robs people of the chance to learn from mistakes, regroup, and come back stronger.


Accountability fuels growth

Accountability is essential! I recall when one of my six sons was taking a pretty tough math class in high school. He faithfully completed his homework, had perfect attendance, and was attentive, but he struggled. The extra help he requested from the teacher only left him more frustrated. When he took his first exam, he got a disappointing result. I was curious to see how he would handle it. Would he blame his teacher? Would he protest and try to negotiate a better grade? Would he give up? Many friends and adults regularly told him he had a “mathematic mind” and that he was “born to do math.” Having failed to live up to these labels, would he flounder? His reaction was none of those things. I asked him what he thought about his test, and he said, “My score is what it is, and I can’t expect the teacher to suddenly change how she teaches math. Let me think about it, and I’ll come back with a plan. I’ll let you know if I need anything.” I didn’t need to reinforce the idea that he owned this situation, that he was ultimately responsible for figuring it out, and that I was there to help if he needed it. He already knew.


Those who look to us for leadership need to see us demonstrate growth-oriented behaviors when we falter. Do they hear us blaming others and redirecting accountability? Do they hear us using the language of defeat? Do they see us trying to obfuscate evidence of our own mistakes? Do they see us flagellating ourselves and crumbling in a heap of self-pity? No!


The way forward

Obviously, as Chief Mistake Officers, we must first set the example for how to avoid blunders, disappointments, and gaffes. But we also need to show to deal with them and let our teams observe us as we accept accountability, learn, and grow. We need to convey, however imperfectly, through our words and actions that we aren’t giving up, that we’re going to regroup, devise a new plan, and come back with renewed energy. Our sincere attempts to do so will have a significant impact on the character, ethos, and behaviors of our teams. This will lead to better business results and greater satisfaction for all.


© Growthsight, LLC 2020


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