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We Make Mistakes at Work. Then What?

Dear Readers,

This is a sticky topic and one that most people prefer to stay away from: Errors at Work. We all make errors; they are part of normal human functioning. We are not error-free beings.

But the magnitude of the mistake and how it is perceived and responded to by our bosses,  managers or supervisors, can vary tremendously. So too can our inner reaction to our error.

Let’s take a close look at one example:

This one is quite personal and still has an initial sting in my memory, followed by a soothing conclusion.

I was the senior training specialist at a large high tech corporation, responsible for the design, development and implementation of sales and system engineer training. We based  future training plans on the results of exams that students took at the end of their three week program. The numerical results were calibrated, compared and analyzed.

For this particular sales training group of about 100 students, it added up to hundreds of exams to correct, with data to tally.

I did the calibrations and gave the results and recommendations to my manager, the department head, Dr. Lowe.

My recommendations were sound, based on the test results, and the next six months of training programs were in the process of being designed.

Until.  Until my manager called me into his office with a stacks of tests. (Yes, this was before we did it all online.) He showed me that I had made a glarring error in my math. And that error led to incorrect assumptions, which led to erroneous training recommendations. Ugh!

I was appalled, embarrassed and ashamed.  I had earned a promotion to senior training development specialist  just three months prior. I felt like melting into the floor, disappearing, or at least pushing back the hands of time and re-doing my work. I’m embarrassed to say that I burst into tears, excused myself, and ran to the restroom.

This was the first time I had ever made what I thought of as a major, horrendous mistake. It was a mistake with significant implications, too. I started doubting my professional capabilities and thinking that perhaps I should quit my job. I finally pulled myself together, walked into the hallway, and my boss found me.  Dr. Lowe was an extraordinary man. He had left a prestigious professorship at a university for a corporate position. Yet, he still looked and dressed as a professor. He was a well respected professional in the world of training, and I was so embarrassed to have made a mistake, especially  to fail Dr. Lowe. He walked me to his office and closed the door so we could talk privately. He looked at me deeply and said, ‘Joan, how many decisions do you think you make each day at work?”  I thought hard and said I probably make a few hundred decisions each day. He nodded and said he had known me for over ayear and noticed that I made many, many excellent decisions. He reminded me that he was the person who saw my work closely, had granted me a major job promotion, and he was still sure I was worthy of it.

He went on to explain that as professionals we really do make hundreds if not thousands of decisions, large and small, each day. And the day that I had calibrated the training exams I clearly made an error. One error, a pretty big one. But actually, our training plans could still be changed and no real damage had been done.

He told me that the real damage could be to my sense of professionalism. And he did not want that to happen. He wanted to make sure that I still felt good with myself, and could hold my head high, and not have self doubt. This man, Dr. Lowe, remains a tremendous role model to me.

As I continued in my career and moved into management, and later coaching, I always used that approach: We are fallible beings who will, from time to time, make mistakes.

I always told my team, and later my clients: You will make errors, everyone does. Learn from them, try not repeat them, and try not make too many. But we cannot allow a mistake now and then to hold us back from being the best we can be in our jobs — 0r in our lives, for that matter.

Onward to bringing the best of you to work and not having a dangerous thing called ‘perfectionism’. We humans are not perfect.

Best regards and hoping that whatever mistakes you do make are found by gentle souls.

Coach Joan

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