Dave Hill discusses an extremely important communication skill….the ability to apologize and take responsibility for a mistake. To illuminate his point he shares a hilarious story of when he “messed up” early on in his marriage, and how he managed to get out of the doghouse. 5 fundamental success strategies when you make a mistake are:
Don’t deflect the blame or give lame excuses to save face
Don’t ignore it hoping it will go away
Take ownership for the mistake as soon as possible
Communicate and come up with sincere corrective actions
Back in July 2000, my wife and I decided to build a large wooden fort in our back garden for our young kids. The cost of a fort “kit” was well over $1300, which was well beyond our means. As a frugal Irishman I would never be able to convince myself to spend that kind of money anyway. The next best thing was to do some reverse engineering and build it ourselves. It would be a great weekend project. On the way home from work each day, I would pass a store that sold garden forts, and they had a beautiful fully assembled one in the front parking lot as a display. Every day for about a month I would stop for about 10 minutes, pretending to check it out, and then covertly take out my tape measure and measure up a few parts and enter them with diagrams into a small note book. The reverse- engineered plagiarized design started to come together slowly but surely, and soon we were ready to buy the materials.
We arrived at the local hardware store in our old Ford Escort station wagon to choose the best pieces of wood from the lumber section and bring them home. By the time the wood was loaded in the car, it was weighed down to a level where the exhaust pipe was nearly scraping the ground. There were big sheets of plywood and a plastic slide tied with rope to the roof, and the 4 x 4 pieces of wood were stacked thickly in the body of the station wagon. We drove home carefully, making sure we did not lose any of our precious cargo. When we arrived home, our young kids were elated with the thought of having a wooden play fort. This was going to be a great weekend….or was it?
That weekend there were noises of bits of wood being cut, nails being hammered, and the grunts and groans of hundreds of screws being inserted into the structure. Bit by bit it started to take shape. At some stage during the assembly, I discovered that I had miscounted the amount of 4 x 4’s I needed for the frame. Since I was in the middle of assembling, I asked my wife to go back to the hardware store and get a 10 ft. length.
The total cost of this play fort was going to come in under $300, and we were having a fine time “barn-raising” as a family, putting it together. It is always a good day when you can apply your engineering skills to some home projects and get to stand back and admire the workmanship and revel in the cost savings.
Then came the bad news; my wife arrived home with the piece of wood inside the car and I could see that she was somewhat upset. She looked at me and said, “I have good news and bad news”. “What’s the good news?” I asked”. “I found a really great piece of 4 x4”. “What’s the bad news then?” She smiled sheepishly and said, “I managed to fit a 10 ft. piece of wood into an 8 ft. long car.” She then showed me that she had pushed the piece of wood all the way into the car so she could get the hatch door closed. Unfortunately, the last push had also caused the piece of wood to hit the front windshield causing it to pop out and break. The cost of the fort was due to be about $300, the cost of the additional piece of wood was $25, and the cost of a new windshield was about $200. The new cost of the fort was now $525!
The fort was finally finished on the Sunday evening. My wife put the finishing touches to it by painting vines on the sides using the light of a lamp she had brought from the living room. Immediately there were shrieks of joy from our kids as they climbed, chased each other, and slid down the slide. The negativity of the broken windshield became a nuisance of the past, and I put the memory in my story file to use at a later date.
As an engineer of nearly 30 years, I have made my fair share of mistakes while doing projects. I have been lucky that I have nearly always been surrounded by positive, uplifting people and have grown to learn that mistakes are normal and part of gaining experience, but most importantly, they are things you get over and sometimes you even get to laugh at them. I have been at meetings where we were wrapping up projects and celebrating our success with a special lunch. Sometimes the meetings would include a segment to encourage people to talk about what went wrong. People would talk about improvement opportunities for the next project. Occasionally, there would be a competition and gag prizes for the person who confessed to causing the biggest mishap. Not only did this help diminish the embarrassment of making mistakes using lighthearted humor, it also provided a forum where people could learn from each other’s mistakes.
A positive forum for learning from mistakes is highly beneficial to any organization. The benefits can include:
1. Creating a culture where people openly admit mistakes and are not afraid to let others know (rather than keeping quiet and hoping that the mistake does not get noticed or lead to adverse conditions such as an accident)
2. Giving us the opportunity to do things differently and benefit from the results- Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
3. Building morale and improving teamwork and camaraderie by diminishing the negativity associated with errors
4. Inspiring people to set far reaching goals and push the limits of technology without the hindrance of career limiting reprimands
Dave Hill – Speaker, Trainer, Author, & Speech Coach. Photo by GNISLEW
Imagine you are 11 years old in a science laboratory. You are sitting quietly in the back of the room. You and your school friends have stealthily “borrowed” some chemicals from the chemical storage cupboard. In the basin beside you is a small glass jar of concentrated sulfuric acid, and a plastic container holding potassium permanganate. While the teacher lectures at the front of the room, you giggle quietly with your classmates and pour a mound of the potassium permanganate crystals inside the basin. You then add a little bit of sulfuric acid and there is some bubbling and frothing. While keeping an eye out for the teacher, you add some more sulfuric acid, then some more, then a lot more, and finally there is a little puff of purple smoke – which quickly erupts, belching out huge clouds into the room while the basin makes spitting and hissing noises. There is immediate panic, the room is evacuated. You are in big trouble.
This was a mistake I made over 35 years ago. I expected to be sent to the principal for a “caning” (the ultimate fearful punishment). I was surprised when the science teacher took me aside when things had calmed down and explained what had happened with the runaway chemical reaction. He wrote down the chemical reactions so it was very clear what had happened. He then made me promise that I would not “borrow” any more school chemicals. He was one of those teachers that you reflect back on and remember their ability to make a subject interesting. You also remember how they mentor students to help them get captivated with a subject, and they coach you on the mistakes you make.
This story came to mind this morning when I was listening to an audio book called “Winning” by Jack Welch, the ex CEO of GE. Jack talked about leadership traits, empowering people, building confidence in employees, developing a workplace where people speak their minds without retribution, encouraging a workplace where people take risks and are not “whacked” for making mistakes etc. He told a brief story about how he made a mistake early on in his career and blew up a large storage tank at a facility he was working at. There was a fire and the ensuing explosion broke windows. It caused ceiling tiles and other building components to fail. Even though this was a serious accident he was not sacked because of his mistake, as a matter of fact his boss discussed the scenario with him to try and work out what had gone wrong. It was treated as a learning experience and Jack remembered the leadership qualities of his boss. Imagine if someone was discussing your leadership skills 40+ years from now with specific stories.
Last year, I heard about the president of a high-tech company standing in front of his employees at an annual conference and breaking eggs on his head as he told them about risks and mistakes he had made throughout his career. There was also discussion about an executive who told his employees, “We don’t sack people who make mistakes, we sack people who don’t take risks.” These are leaders who understand the benefits and ultimate competitive advantage of mistakes.
What are the effects of a zero tolerance for mistakes?
1. Wasting time making sure all the ‘t’s are crossed before moving forward
2. High speed working environments usually have us making decisions with incomplete information and this works well most of the time – the job may never get done if we decide to spend a lot of time “playing safe”
3. People will be hesitant to bring creative ideas to the table due to the prospect of getting ridiculed
4. People are less likely to own up and identify their mistakes, errors can fester and grow unknown until there is a serious consequence
5. Employees who harbor the guilt of having made a mistake can end up with low energy levels due to worrying about the eventual consequences
6. People will be hesitant to bring creative ideas to the table due to the prospect of getting “whacked” (as Jack Welch calls it) if they fail
Ten Ways Exceptional Workplaces Handle “Progress By Mistake”
1. Management should be continuously vocal on the benefits of trying unique creative ideas and that the company supports and understands the importance of mistakes.
2. Provide a culture where people identify their mistakes and make them known at the earliest opportunity. They also get involved in fixing mistakes
3. At the end of a project there is a special meeting to discuss things that went wrong and there are rewards for the most “creative mistakes” (making this into a fun event helps people get over the mistakes in a positive manner)
4. Hire creative people with exceptional communication skills and impeccable ethics
5. Develop a workplace that embraces respect and trust
6. Continuously energize and empower employees. Delegate to them with clear objectives and let them “run with the ball”
7. Create an aura of balanced fun-energy that helps derail negativity from mistakes and encourages creativity
8. Maintain happy and loyal workers who feel invested in the company’s goals
9. Evoke an open communication culture where employees will speak up when they identify that someone may be making a bad decision (even if the person making the mistake is at the highest level of the organization
10. Provide recognition for people who come up with exceptional ideas. Communicate frequently and broadly throughout the organization
The Irish author James Joyce summed up this subject exceptionally well when he said, “Mistakes are the portals to discovery.”