Many organizations in India and abroad show a low tolerance towards mistakes by employees. Mistakes are often viewed negatively and managers and employees alike are conditioned into believing that mistakes are unproductive and reflect poorly on an individual’s level of efficiency. Contrast this with what the original management guru (there are now too many of them including yours truly) Peter Drucker says, “The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make, for the more new things he will try. I would never promote into a top-level job a man who was not making mistakes, otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.” This tells you why you should never make the mistake of discouraging employees from making mistakes.
Most of us are conditioned to associate mistakes with negative connotations. We all have a tendency to avoid risks. Every time someone tries out something new, there is always the risk of failing, as a certain amount of experimentation is required. But, ironically risk avoidance carries the worst risk any individual or organization can take. It is the surest method of creating a ‘safe’ organization where creativity is stifled and conformity becomes the norm. In the long term, this can have dire consequences on the effectiveness of an organization.
Any manager has to take risks, it is part of the job. The level, type and number of risks that you have to take, however, depend on the nature of your job. Studies based on personality tests show that managers showing the greatest tendency to take risks usually end up becoming top managers.
A recent survey of top managers found that most believed the basis of their current success was the lessons learned from business failures early in their careers. They were not averse to taking risks and accepted this as part and parcel of doing business and leading successful organizations.
While those who make mistakes are more likely to succeed later, it does not mean managers can afford to take unwarranted risks. There must be certain parameters set to ensure that an individual doesn’t go overboard. The question therefore is, ‘What are acceptable risks, and when should risks be taken?” This is a difficult question as different industries and organizations may have different parameters. And there is always the reality that the greater the risks the greater the payoff.
How should we go about encouraging a culture of prudent risk taking where making mistakes is not considered a mistake? The first thing to do is to have a conducive working environment that promotes and supports risk taking. This will have the effect of converting risk evaders into risk takers. This kind of environment also gives employees opportunities to learn from their mistakes with no fear of repercussions.
Here are a few tips on how you can create a work culture that encourages prudent risk taking:
Encourage and build a climate where problems are accepted and mistakes acknowledged. Do not respond to a mistake by an immediate scolding. Try to solve the problem, and then, more importantly, discuss how the mistake could be avoided in the future.
Subordinates must be taught that errors are part of the cost of development. A mistake provides an excellent opportunity to learn and improve on whatever is being done. On the other hand, irrational and repeated mistakes should not be tolerated.
Many innovations and concepts are not successful initially. Persistence and the ability to deal with disappointment and failure are therefore essential. To learn from one’s mistakes, one must be able to accept failure, analyze the reasons for the failure and then take the appropriate action. As Akio Morita, the Chairman of Sony says, “when customers see our products they only see success, they do not see the 99% of failures that made that product possible”.
*Do not be conditioned by past failures*
There is a tendency for managers to be conditioned by past mistakes and failures. This encourages conservatism and caution. Past mistakes must be acknowledged and learned from. They must never be allowed to impede risk taking options in the future.
It is always easy for managers to take the path of least resistance and seek out only the risk free options. This not only reduces managers to being mere clerks who routinely and mechanically follow some laid down rules and never look beyond them, but it also affects a company’s overall success.
As Bill Gates, the CEO and Chairman of Microsoft says, “How a company deals with mistakes suggests how well it will bring out the best ideas and talents of its people, and how effectively it will respond to change. When employees know that mistakes won’t lead to retribution, it creates an atmosphere in which people are willing to come up with ideas and suggest changes. This is important to a company’s long term success.”
Moreover, in certain industries not making mistakes is a sure sign of a shirker. For example, in the media industry one can often hear old timers say “only those who work make mistakes”.
Making mistakes and learning from them is also crucial for achieving perfection and excellence. Those managers who are constantly identifying their own mistakes to learn from them are also those who bother about details and trifles. They are never satisfied with merely doing a job well – they are always trying to correct those small mistakes, those trifles that mar excellence. These are the people who have realized the wisdom in the words of the great Italian sculptor and artist Michaelangelo who once said: “Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle!”