Insurance against adversity

It’s easy to trust people when they succeed; managing people’s mistakes is much more complicated. This is where managers earn their pay.

As a manager you know that people will make mistakes. You know that don’t you? Really! You also know that the biggest learning comes from the biggest mistakes. Think of the biggest learning experience you’ve had – something memorable. I would bet all the money in my pocket that it’s not some wonderful experience when things worked beautifully. For me it’s the time I crashed the car. I’ll never forget that experience. It was 12 years ago, but to this day I always look right when turning left at a junction.

So, if you really, truly want your staff to be creative, motivated and happy – tell them you want them to make mistakes. Tell them you’ll punish them if they don’t. Give them targets of how many mistakes they must make in a week and if they make more – give them a bonus. Trust them.

Some of the greatest products have come from mistakes: the original postit note was made from a batch of glue that didn’t stick, play-doh was designed as a wallpaper cleaner.

But it’s vital that when people make mistakes you deal with it as an adult. Look at what happened, calmly. Find out what went wrong, non-blamefully. Make sure everyone learns from it and it doesn’t happen again.

Learning by definition, my definition at least, involves change. Otherwise why bother. This could be a change in attitude, behaviour, whatever, but at some level, a change.

At an organisational level, businesses need to change to survive. Reg Revons’ formula – L => C (where L is the rate of learning and C is the rate of change) – is especially true today where the rate of change increases almost week by week. Organisations that don’t change die. Think about it.

All projects will have things go wrong. Competitors have a habit of not doing what you expect them to (that’s their job), technologies come and go, and important people change their minds. As a project manager, it’s guaranteed that things will happen that were not predicted or accounted for. In tough or uncertain times, you want your team or your peers to be able to rely on you and trust in each other. Iftrust has been cultivated and grown over time, and people have experience making decisions with each other (instead of in spite of each other), the project will be highly resilient to problems.

When people believe in the team, they can summon forms of confidence and patience that aren’t available through other means. Like soldiers in a foxhole, each person can rely on someone else to watch his back, freeing him to give more energy to the task ahead. When a team trusts each other, it also buys the project manager time to focus on solving the problems at hand, instead of trying to calm down the hallways of panicked or frustrated employees. Sometimes the leader might need to ask for this kind of support explicitly.

He has to demonstrate the respect he wants from the team by acknowledging the problem and asking, but not demanding, their support. (Yelling “Support me now!” doesn’t work.) On the whole, it’s connections between people that get them through tough times: not their salaries, not the technologies they work on, and certainly not how much power an individual does or does not have. So, the wise leader, like a ship’s captain, knows that unseen storms and dangers lurk across the sea, and he gets himself and his crew ready as best as he can against what he cannot prepare for.

If uncertainty is guaranteed, the project manager’s best investment is likely to be having a strong network of trust between him and everyone who’s contributing to the effort. On larger teams, more time should be spent building trust on the relationships that are most critical to the project or most likely to fail under stress. While specs, vision documents, and other tools do help bind people together, it’s the trust in the people behind those things that carries the real power.

Making mistakes

It’s easy to trust people when they succeed; managing people’s mistakes is much more complicated. This is where managers earn their pay. I know from my own experience that every time someone showed up at my office door with a problem he caused, I’d try (but not always succeed) to maintain three thoughts:

1. I’m glad he’s coming to me about it. I’d rather he come to me instead of hide it or try to solve it on his own and make it worse. I should let him know this right away.
2. How can I help fix this problem? Is it even fixable? What are the options? How involved should I be? I should give him as much advice as he needs, but, if possible, have him carry out what needs to be done. However, I have to make sure he’s not in over his head. Sending him into battle with a 99% certainty of instant death isn’t exactly good management practice.
3. I need to make sure that if there is a lesson here, he’ll learn it. Mistakes are where real learning happens because the mistake maker has a personal and emotional investment in what happened, and he will have tremendous motivation not to repeat it (especially if he feels that the team trusts him). If you ask any wise masters of any discipline for their great lessons, they will tell stories about how they screwed something up, probably an important thing, and finally learned a better way to go about doing whatever it was.

In many military organizations, only situations described as incidents or missions require debriefings. So, if something stupid happens, and it’s not really anyone’s fault and the impact is minimal, there might be no lesson at all, and it’s not worth the effort to make a big deal out of it. In fact, the best responsemight be to express that your approval isn’t needed for similarminor issues in the future.

Good management is about giving people as much responsibility as their abilities allow, but somehow never letting them feel that they are working alone, or that they have your support only when things are going well. It makes sense that the potential to make mistakes is the exact same potential needed to contribute and succeed. This means it’s unfair to pin people to the wall for errors in judgment or for problems that arise from decisions they’ve made.

Instead, the ideal environment to create is one where people are comfortable being ambitious, but will admit to and take responsibility for their mistakes. They should feel trusted enough to want to learn as much as they can so that it won’t happen again. If the team collectively shares this culture, it becomes self-correcting. When there is a healthy system for recognizing, responding to, and learning from mistakes, over time fewer of them tend to happen (or when they do, they are dealt with quickly), and people are more confident taking all kinds of action in the nonmistake majority of their time.

Gaining trust by admitting mistakes

Perhaps it could be said that a mistake a day makes us human. And, there have been some days when I would been happy with just one mistake. No matter the frequency, we all make mistakes in both our personal and professional lives. One of the most powerful opportunities for any leader to build trust is to publicly admit mistakes. The source of that power is that it is so rare for leaders to stand up in front of a group and say something like this: “I called you here today to admit that I made a serious blunder yesterday. It was not intentional, as I will explain. Nevertheless, I failed to do the best thing for our group. I sincerely apologize for this and call on all of us to help mend the damage quickly. Without being defensive, let me just explain what happened…”

Anyone in a position of leadership has likely made more mistakes than those that report to her/him. They probably have taken more chances because that’s the way you move up in an organization and they likely have more experience because they’ve been in the game longer. In many instances, our first response when confronting a mistake is to deny it or make up an excuse. We don’t want to seem stupid or ill informed. However, as leaders we must recognize the maxim that “to err is human.” Accepting this, we must have the self-confidence and integrity to admit our mistakes. Only with such admission will we maintain the trust of those we lead. When I have made a mistake that has upset an individual, often I find that a simple apology goes a long way.

In business, we make decisions every day based upon imperfect information. We may get blindsided by a competitive response or we may underestimate the time that it takes to sell a product. Accepting our error, rather than avoiding responsibility, limits the potential damage and sets us on the right course.

Here are a few situations where an admission of a mistake would not produce higher trust:
– If the blunder was out of sheer stupidity.
– If this was the third time the leader had done essentially the same thing.
– If the leader is prone to making mistakes due to shooting before aiming.
– If the leader simply failed to get information that he should have had.
– If the leader was appeasing higher-ups inappropriately.

Assuming none of the above conditions is present and the mistake is an honest one, admitting it publicly is often the best strategy.
Poor decisions regarding our behavior that compromise our credibility with our employees, constituents, or followers are particularly damaging. All of us who work in corporate life have experienced a down-sizing(s)-either as the architect or the recipient. Often, I think about the importance of honesty in communicating with our followers up to and through these trying events. When difficult matters are at hand, honesty is the best policy. Sugar coating the facts or intentionally misleading people will not earn respect, but instead will foster disrespect.

Trust is huge in our society. Social media is probably the one key thing that has brought that out more over the past few years than anything else. We are living in a time where we can no longer hide ourselves. Accountability is around every corner and it can be a very good thing.