Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mistakes, A Wonderful Teaching Tool

“We made too many wrong mistakes.” ~Yogi Berra

Think for a second about which you learn the most from, success or failure.

In my life, though my successes have been great, I have learned the most from my failures, which incidentally are many. I would venture to guess most people would say the same.

As human beings, it is natural to enjoy success, but these good feelings are fleeting. Mistakes, on the other hand, have a much bigger impact. Their effects tend to stay with us much longer.

A person's success can be five times bigger than their error, but odds are they will remember the error and forget the success. Using this knowledge, we can help our staff overcome their mistakes in a positive way.

Too often, I hear managers and entrepreneurs talking about how they wish their staff would not make mistakes because errors decrease productivity. This may be true, but mistakes also create coaching opportunities, which are invaluable. This was the approach an accounts receivable manager took when one of the clerks misplaced some checks.

Instead of reacting negatively, the manager used the situation as a coaching opportunity. She and the clerk discussed what had happened, the consequences of the error to the business and how the clerk could avoid having it happen again. In doing so, the manager transformed what could have been an extremely demoralizing situation into a very positive experience.

While the clerk felt bad about her mistake, she came through it feeling like her manager was really trying to help her improve.

Many years ago I was working as an outside plant engineer in Tampa. An outside plant engineer designs the cable layout for the telephone company and makes a multitude of decisions to ensure necessary communications. Determining cable size and pole location are just a couple examples.

On one design, I completely underestimated the size of the cable and specified a 200 pair cable when it should have been a 600 pair cable.

Just before the supplies were purchased for the job — which would have cost millions of dollars — my boss caught my error. He chewed me up one side and down the other without stopping for even a second to talk about how this error occurred or how it could be avoided in the future. He thought yelling at me would stop me from making the same mistake again.

He was partially right, I guess. My reaction to this situation was to begin asking for his OK on every decision that could have a major impact. No doubt, this was a nuisance for him, but it kept me out of hot water.

His bullying had a couple of detrimental effects. One, it killed any desire in me to be innovative and original in my thinking. My only concern now was staying out of trouble. And two, it ultimately pushed me to leave the company and start working toward my MBA.

The truth is mistakes are inevitable. You can use them either to tear the employee down or help create a positive learning experience, which is the key to being a great manager and leader.

Now go out and make sure that you approach your staff's mistakes as opportunities to coach them into becoming the best employees they can be.

You can do this!

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