Mistakes Are Portals to Discovery

Wednesday, June 29 2011

Frank was sweating bullets. In five minutes the junior executive would be meeting with the president of his company. It wasn’t just any meeting. The day before it had been discovered that an error on his part had cost the company $10 million.  Sure, it was a big company, but losing that much money was still very serious. He hadn’t slept all night; he looked and felt terrible. The confidence he had the week before, certain of the upward trajectory of his career, vanished like a puff of smoke.

Finally he was asked in. The president’s office was designed to intimidate, ten foot high windows and a desk the size of a pool table. One uncomfortable looking chair faced the president, who sat on the opposite side of the desk. Without a word, the president beckoned him to sit down.

Frank sat. The silence gathered between them. It was too much for Frank. He started to talk.

“I’m really sorry. I know I screwed up. I have no excuse to offer. It was my responsibility and I made a mistake. I guess you’d like my resignation…”

The president was calm and completely still. His face was hard to read as he looked Frank in the eye. This was a pivotal moment. His response would have an immeasurable impact on this salesman’s life and it would set a precedent in the company for what would happen when someone made such a serious mistake.

On the one hand, this young man had made a major error. It was expensive and would have a negative effect on their brand. But it was done and nothing could change the fact it had happened.

On the other hand, he had reviewed Frank’s record and all other indicators suggested that he was a true professional. Frank had grown through the ranks, taken recommended courses and transfers, and up to this point, had been an asset to the company. To his credit, he wasn’t trying to blame anyone else. He was admitting responsibility and was prepared to accept the consequences of his actions.

“You can’t be serious,” replied the president. “We’ve just paid $10 million for your education. The next person we hire could make the same mistake; but, if I’m right about you, you’ll never make that error again. Let’s talk about what you’ve learned.”

This is a fictional account of a true story. The president was IBM founder, Thomas Watson Sr.

Sometimes things go wrong and once done, they can’t be undone. But how you respond will often determine whether or not you get a second chance. If you’ve made the mistake, accept responsibility and one way or another, learn from the experience.

If you’re the manager, recognize that these are teachable moments and look for ways to turn the negative into an opportunity. Responding effectively will set the tone for more open communication in your organization.

That’s easier said than done, and while we pay lip service to the idea that we learn best from our mistakes, many companies don’t do it very well. AlinaTugend writes in her book, Better by Mistake that people are often punished for their errors and this “… creates a culture where people spend enormous amounts of energy blaming each other when things go wrong rather than finding a solution.”

I think Mr. Watson had the right idea. Individuals and companies would do well to tolerate more mistakes and turn each one into an education that moves them forward.