Business Mistakes and How to Handle Them

Not long ago, a coaching client and I were exploring the concept of procrastination and came upon the notion that we all suffer from fear of failure to one degree or another. The need for perfection and our attempt to avoid making costly mistakes can sometimes prevent us from moving forward. This got me to thinking about the nature of mistakes and how to handle them.

Some typical work/business mistakes:

  • Dropping or changing a procedure
  • Hiring the wrong person
  • Making a decision without consultation
  • Making no decision
  • Not upholding established standards
  • Jumping to conclusions without checking
  • Not heeding one’s intuition
  • Not dealing with performance issues when they arise

How companies and organizations handle mistakes

There appear to be two styles of dealing with mistakes. The first is an outdated “Monitor them, catch them making mistakes and chastise them for it” style. Roger Harrison in The Collected Papers of Roger Harrison suggests an alternative style. “Innovative companies are beginning to encourage people to take risks and to fail, because failure is rich with opportunities for learning about connections between events and processes.” Here’s how companies encourage their employees to view mistakes as learning opportunities (taken from Masterful Coaching by Robert Hargrove)

  1. Gather people together and inquire into how they deal with mistakes
  2. Have an open conversation around the issue. Start off with general attitudes and then go to specifics.
  3. Ask: “Do people in the group generally look at mistakes as learning opportunities or as a reason to get discouraged and give up?”
  4. Use an example from outside the company.
  5. Ask on a weekly and monthly basis: “What’s working and what isn’t working?”

‘The attitude around mistakes needs to be that a mistake is a breakdown on the path to accomplishment rather than something that represents a personal failure.” (Hargrove)

Questions to avoid:

  • Whose fault is it?
  • What’s wrong with what I/she did?

Productive questions:

  • What is the breakdown? Try using a process flow chart as a guide for discovery.
  • What correction do we need to make to eliminate the breakdown in the future?
  • What is missing that would make a difference?

“Success does not breed success. It breeds failure. It is failure that breeds success.” (M. Markkula, Apple Computers)

James Kouzes in The Leadership Challenge speaks about learning to ski: His coach told him: “If you are not falling, you are not learning. You are only doing what is easy. You are not pushing yourself to try anything new or difficult.” Is that what we want for our organizations in today’s competitive atmosphere?

Coaching Questions to Stimulate Reflection About Your Life & Work

  1. What was the biggest business mistake you ever made? What did you learn from it?
  2. When was the last time you made a mistake in business? How often do you make mistakes? What does that tell you?
  3. What risk do you need to take in order to achieve what you want?
  4. How do you respond when your employees make a mistake? Are they making neglectful mistakes or are they making creative mistakes?