Mistakes. Everybody makes them, and there's no shortage of advice about what to do when they happen -- from how to stop beating yourself up, to owning them, to avoiding them in the first place. But all this advice notwithstanding, we live in a culture that's profoundly phobic about mistakes, and it's justified. So we waste a lot of energy trying to hide mistakes, deflect blame for them, and just plain feel bad -- humiliated, embarrassed, angry -- about our own mistakes and the mistakes of others.
"We stigmatize mistakes," says Sir Ken Robinson. "And we're now running national educational systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities."
I think you'll agree that it would be great to stop stigmatizing mistakes and crushing people's creative capacities. So what can you do with those mistakes, and how should you relate to the people (you know, everybody) who make them? If you look to improvisation -- which is an important part of the work my company and I do with leaders and organizations -- there's a way forward: You can play with, create with, and celebrate mistakes.
Yes, I literally mean celebrate, because celebrating mistakes -- not just tolerating or even allowing for them -- helps to produce an environment that supports experimentation, risk-taking, and trust, which are essential building blocks for growth and new learning, as well as innovation and creativity. Improvisers love mistakes, because of their bottom-line commitment to make each other look good. So when a mistake happens onstage, it galvanizes the ensemble and forces everyone to work at the top of their intelligence and creativity to build something wonderful out of it.
I recently coached Lindsey, an experienced and talented salesperson who's two months into her new position at a tech startup. She'd had a pitch meeting with a potential client, and it was potentially a very big deal, so she invited her boss, Karen, to join her. And the meeting had gone very well, Lindsey thought -- she felt good about her rapport with the client, and when it came to describing the specific product offering she had nailed it. She was particularly proud that she hadn't had to turn to Karen with any questions, or defer to her in any way.
But the next day, Lindsey received an email from the prospect saying they had decided to "go in another direction," citing a number of ways the product Lindsey had described wasn't a good fit with their needs. When she shared the news with her boss, Karen pointed out that the outcome might have been different if Lindsey had brought her into the conversation -- Karen had developed the product and was an expert in it and its applications.
In relaying this story to me, Lindsey shared how deeply embarrassed she was by the mistake of shutting Karen out of the conversation. "How could I have done that? I'm an idiot," and on and on. I stopped her -- and gave her a round of applause.
"Woo-hoo!" I said. "You made a mistake!"
Lindsey looked at me like I had two heads. I suggested that she not let her embarrassment get in the way of seeing the gift that she had received. Lindsey isn't the expert yet. Whew. What a relief that she doesn't have to act like one! Instead Lindsey could perform her excitement about her company, why she came on board, use her boss's presence (when she's fortunate enough to have her), to project the deep expertise that the company has, and learn how to interact with clients by making better use of her role model right there with her.
I'm not advocating for you to make mistakes. (I don't have to, because they're going to keep happening!) I am advocating for what happens next. You need to push beyond slogans about "learning from mistakes" and, start creating a different culture of mistake-making. Sometimes this means talking about it with someone you trust. Sometimes it means putting "the best mistake I made this week" on your staff meeting agenda. Sometimes it can mean whooping, clapping, and taking a bow, to break the stigma and the pattern of blame. However you perform your celebration, you can not only learn, but grow, from mistakes.