Make No Mistake: Mistakes Happen

Lynn Homisak PRT

Yes, mistakes do and will happen. But did you ever stop to think why? Is one type of person more likely than another to make mistakes or is it due to lack of focus, little attention to detail, distractions, too much to do or absent direction? Perhaps the mistake is the result of procrastination and the subsequent push to get everything done in a self-inflicted timeframe.

I have heard doctors complain about staff members who continually make mistakes and want the “quick fix” to remedy these too frequent, sometimes costly errors. Holy blunders, Batman … if only there were a mistake eliminator pill we could prescribe! Alas, there is not.

You see, mistakes happen for a reason and they are not restricted to employees, children and/or spouses. Yes, all of us, even you, make them. The good news is that if we handle them properly, for every mistake, there is a lesson to learn.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a health psychologist at Stanford University, wrote a most intriguing article entitled “The Science of Willpower” in Psychology Today.1 She talks about studies that identified two typical brain responses to mistakes. One response is a “wake-up call” because when confronted with a mistake, the brain signals a learning response. The brain wants to learn why the mistake happened and what needed to happen differently to improve performance, and prevent this mistake from happening again.

The alternative-type brain takes a more defensive “shutdown” approach when facing a mistake. Feeling that negative feedback is more of a threat, its response is, “If I do not think about it, I don’t have to admit fault,” avoiding any feelings of embarrassment or responsibility. As you might guess, this rarely comes with any lessons, meaning it can happen again and again. The author points out that the people who are more open in their thinking actually pay more attention to their mistakes, learn from them and improve while those who are more closed-minded are less attentive and rarely learn from mistakes.

Good leaders will admit … it’s not as much about always being right as it is about always doing what’s right. What approach do you take in your office when mistakes happen? Are you one of those people who feels the need to quantify the number of mistakes your staff makes by pointing out each and every one of them in comparison to their coworkers? This approach rarely results in fewer mistakes.

In fact, putting your staff on public display by pinpointing their mistakes in front of others is wounding. You might think that doing so teaches others a lesson but it does not. All it does is put everyone on edge. Maybe you find yourself reacting and unable to refrain from shouting, “What were you thinking!?”

The better method would have been to understand what led to the error in the first place and what you could do to prevent it from happening again. “You know I tried it that way too, Evelyn, and the same thing (or ‘here is what’) happened to me.” You should follow that up by asking, “How can we do it differently and improve the outcome?” This tactic will be very effective in helping that person learn to do better and your perceived leadership abilities … well, you will be considered an inspirational genius.

Blame, shame and threats all lead to shutdown. Staff does not need to hear, “You better not make this same mistake again or else …” What they need is for someone to explain to them the anticipated end result and exactly how to make it happen.

Yes, we all make mistakes now and then. “The only real mistake,” says composer John Powell, “is the one from which we learn nothing.”


1. McGonigal K. How mistakes can make you smarter. Psychology Today. Available at . Published December 6, 2011. Accessed March 5, 2014.

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