If you ever start feeling superhuman, wait a day or two — you're sure to make a mistake, and you'll probably feel bad about it. Making mistakes is nothing to worry about — it's proof of your humanity. The time to worry is when you don't think you're making mistakes, because you probably are — you just don't know it yet.
Finding out that we've made a mistake can be a really good thing. In October, 2001, when I edited the configuration file for my newsletter, I unwittingly turned on an option that enables everyone to send anything at all to the list. Nothing much happened until February, when a subscriber replied to an issue, another complained that that message was spam, someone else advised people not to reply to the list, and so on, until the world exploded. If I had found out about my mistake earlier, in some other way, only I would have known.
If recognizing a mistake can actually be a good thing, why do we have such a hard time acknowledging mistakes? For many of us, the difficulty traces to what Virginia Satir called a survival rule. Survival rules are over-generalized imperatives that we usually learn when very young, like "I must eat everything on my plate." Of course, there are no exemptions for survival rules, even for reasonable circumstances, and that's where the trouble begins.
Finding out that
we've made a mistake
can be a really good thingSince it's our nature to make mistakes, a rule forbidding them — "I must never make a mistake" — provides an unending supply of trouble. When we do make a mistake, we feel bad about the consequences, but we also feel bad about the mistake itself. We can feel so bad that we deny it, or lie, or commit crimes, or even write long emails.
Converting rules to more forgiving guidelines is very helpful. A more reasonable guideline might be something like "I do my best not to make mistakes, and I'm human."
And it helps to reframe mistakes. In many ways, mistakes can actually be gifts in disguise. Here are a few gifts that sometimes come along with mistakes:
- If you realize that you've made a mistake, it wasn't fatal.
- Every mistake is an opportunity to practice owning up to mistakes.
- The earlier you find out about a mistake, the more time you have to do something about it.
- Your mistakes are a service to your community — everyone around you feels better about their own fallibility.
- What you were actually trying to do might have been even worse than the mistake you made.
The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More
For more on survival rules, see "Heavy Burdens: Should, Always, Must, and Never," Point Lookout for February 27, 2002.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Never, Ever, Kill the Messenger
- If you're a manager in a project-oriented organization, you need to know the full, unvarnished Truth.
When you kill a messenger, you deliver a message of your own: Tell me the Truth at your peril. Killing
messengers has such predictable results that you have to question any report you receive — good
news or bad.
- Responding to Threats: III
- Workplace threats come in a variety of flavors. One class of threats is indirect. Threateners who use
the indirect threats aim to evoke fear of consequences brought about not by the threatener, but by other
parties. Indirect threats are indeed warnings, but not in the way you might think.
- Staying in Abilene
- A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort
that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens
when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
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responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Directed Attention Fatigue
- Humans have a limited capacity to concentrate attention on thought-intensive tasks. After a time, we
must rest and renew. Most brainwork jobs aren't designed with this in mind.
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: On Working Breaks in Meetings
- When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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