13 August 2007

Permission to err

I don't remember the last time someone at work took responsibility for a mistake.

I take that back – the last time, it was me. I reported that I went forward in a project without the support I needed, knowing that I would just have to make do with being shorthanded, overworked, and very nearly overwhelmed. Alright, I halfway take that back – I did this in front of bosses who long knew of the issue and who, in my opinion, should have been quick to say that the responsibility was shared between us with the lion’s share belonging to them for allowing the mismanagement of my time and effort on their behalf. [I’m dropping a lot of context, so I guess you’ll just have to take my word for accuracy.] I’m taking it back because raising my hand to accept responsibility was in no uncertain terms a MacGuffin I played to see where the bosses’ lines were in protecting employees in the future and to see if they would step up to taking the buck.

When I make a mistake, I learn from it. When I learn from a mistake, I am likely to have just become better at what I am doing. In most instances, I think it should be okay for me to admit to an error; especially as I am expected to (at least attempt to) correct my mistakes. Failing to mention a trivial mistake is likely trivial, likewise failing to mention a catasprophic mistake is likely catasprophic. People who don’t make errors are dishonest. They are dishonest since no such infallible person exists. Public admission of errors can admittedly be dangerous, so I’m not advocating that we go about shouting out our foibles willy-nilly. But I do expect that within a team, with one’s manager, and with one’s direct reports it should be reasonably safe to expose one’s stumbling.

Am I off base? Am I asking too much of a team/manager/direct? Is there a different standard applied to, say, women versus men or senior staff versus junior staff?


Christopher said...

The problem with admitting mistakes is that it leaves you open for vultures, those people whose only interest in the business is in climbing over people, not in the actual business itself.

If keeping mum about a mistake will hurt you less (socially, company-wise, financially) than admitting to it, then the hugely vast majority of people will decide to keep mum.

People learn this from an early age. You see another child spill a glass of milk and get punished when they admit it. Then if you can convincingly blame another child for a glass of milk you spill, then they you get off scott-free whilst seeing the other child punished. And you make them look like a liar to boot.

But mistakes are generally bad to make. How, then, do you create an environment wherein it is more advantageous to admit mistakes rather than hiding/covering/transferring them?

EGV said...

Spot on, Chris. I can't believe I glossed over the need for a safe environment in which to cop to a mistake and ask for help (or patience, as the case may be).

A personal blind spot: I'm sufficiently accustomed to negotiating conflict* that I am liable to forget that it's an inherently unpleasant situation. Mistakes are easy avenues to spark conflict, so naturally, one wants to keep them quiet. Add to that whole schools of manipulation around those behaviors and you've got a recipe for alarming danger in open admission of a mistake. Again, back to offering safety as the starting point for approaching a swift and open remedy of an error.

Pardon the oversimplification I'm about to indulge in. I figure that mistakes are going to happen one way or another, so I try very hard to eschew framing them as bad. Mistakes are just more problems, problems generally have solutions, and the more time you have to solve a problem the better opportunity you have to solve it well. To create that shield of safety so that a team can bring me their problems early (or at all!), I have tried to always let folks know that my first duty as a manager or lead is to make their jobs possible (easy if I can, minimally painful if I cannot). And since responsibility flows up, when an outwardly facing problem arises, I endeavor to position myself to take any hit before my team is at risk to take it.

* Specific to punishment, I figured out early on (little kid early) that most person-to-person punishment is a negotiation, not a directive. I had a hard time seeing how a punishment had anything to do with the infraction and so, if nothing else, I would refuse to accept the frame in which the punishment was presented. Nobody wins with this strategy; the punisher is unable to negatively reinforce the behavior and the punished still gets injured, but now the injury is rendered overtly capricious. The smart authority learns that engaging in discussion (essentially an educational arbitration) frequently both obviates the need for punishment and prevents future infractions. Gorgeously, when done well, this can work both from authority figure to subordinate and vice versa. I am often called upon to employ this tactic when "managing up" to an ineffective or hostile superior (though I do have to be careful to cover my tracks – the more invisible this technique is, the easier it is to carry off).

Joel413 said...

A safe environment to discuss mistakes is essential to open communication as I was talking about in the other forum. My current director loves to play Devil's Advocate when ever I bring anything to him to make sure I've thought through every avenue and noticed or found the pratfalls. In some aspects when I looks at a project that is going to be daunting I find I feel like I am unravelling spaghetti to find the first drop of sauce that touched the noodle. But over time I have grown to appreciate it. Why, when it seems to be the most annoying and time wasting thing? Because I have avoided getting into a project that would have never come to fruition. And other times I've been well prepared for his questions and have convinced him to go through something that he didn't feel was necessary and later thank me for.

That being said, there have been several instances where we haven't gone through this process and what I find beneficial is that we are both able to admit an error and ask what does this mean and are we able to continue.

I have this horrible habit of just wanting to do things for myself and not asking for help. I don't know everything, and I am certainly not an expert in everything having to do with technology, computers and networks.. While I am expected to be for some reason is beyond me... in anyevent, I have to know when I need help and I have to be able to ask for it, and I have to be able to say, "Without this help, this cannot happen." or "Without this help, this will take a lot longer than originally planned." Or something along those lines. And then when a mistake is made, I need the safety and capability to take ownership of responsibility and have the respect tha tI gave it my best and my all with the support offered to me and that there has to be a point where we can cut our losses and move on.

A is A said...

Mistakes should always be admitted, for many of the reasons you mention. The key, for me, is that the mistakes be honest. Mistakes made out of malice are not to be tolerated, possibly one chance for redemption, but no more. Mistakes due to shirking are not so good, but can be managed as long as the attitude changes. Repeated mistakes demonstrate incompetence and, though they should be treated delicately, cannot be allowed to persist. Other than those three exceptions, mistakes should always be allowed, especially if they are honest, because, as you say, they are an opportunity for learning.

Are you asking too much? absolutely not. I demand the same from people I work with. Sure, it's probably not always done in the business world, but I guarantee it diminishes the business's performance.

Are there different standards? probably. I've often been told that I too often ignore such differences (i.e. race, gender, class, education, age, experience, etc.). This is a very intentional choice on my part, though I try not to let it grate on other. I am very performance-based and I could care less about any of those factors with regard to colleagues beyond the extent that the knowledge aids my working relationship with them.

In response to Christopher, it is my experience and belief that keeping mum about a mistake will never hurt you less than admitting it. People who believe or adhere to that simply do not see broadly enough to be useful. Certainly, admission of minor mistakes may be inefficient, but still positive if the opportunity presents itself. Any greater mistakes should alway be voiced.

An environment advantageous to admitting mistakes? I'll have to address this issue in a sufficiently longer post. Coffee shop's about to close. I'll have to address this later, hopefully tomorrow.

Agreed with your assertion of empowering leadership and your assessment of "punishment." I've come to similar conclusions.