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Mistakes Can Help, Really

By Chuck Csizmar, founder and Principal of CMC Compensation Group

Can you recall an instance at work where you made a mistake, an error in judgment, a bad decision?  An “oh cripes!” moment that you would have liked to have had back again?  Perhaps it was a rash decision, a lapse in sound thinking, or simply poor planning that caused you to take a wrong step.  And if you were unlucky, that error was noticed far and wide.

You remember how you felt then, don’t you?  You were likely embarrassed, surprised or even angry.  Certainly you felt awkward that you had messed up and that people had noticed.  To cap it off, in that memory of yours the wrong people had taken notice.

Bet you won’t do that again!

Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick out your neck again.  Turtles don’t make for good leaders. And neither do ostriches.

Because when we make a mistake and learn from it, when we use a negative experience to help us prepare for the next opportunity, we grow as professionals - as individuals and as leaders.  A painful lesson will be more deeply embedded in our consciousness because of the fact that we did screw up, made a bad decision or used poor judgment.  It’s human nature for us to remember our foibles, and because of that to hopefully not repeat those circumstances where we had burned our fingers.

If we were risk adverse and played it safe throughout our career, if we avoided decisions, kept our head down, didn’t stretch ourselves, we would likely never fly high.  We would also never be noticed by our senior leaders and our career might not get us where we wanted to go.

No pain, no gain?

If your strategy is to use your mistakes as a learning experience, what lessons would you take away if you never stubbed your toe?  Chances are your ego would swell with self-importance, and what had been healthy self-confidence would morph into supreme over-confidence.  You would start reading your own press releases, and that pathway leads to a steep cliff.  It’s only a matter of distance.

I remember my father always telling me, “at least try.”  That’s good advice for managers too.

So take a calculated risk.  I’m not talking about a roll of the dice, but a decision or an action plan based on your knowledge and experience.  Use your professional judgment and put a stake in the ground.  Stand up for something and you’ll learn from the experience.  If you stumble, pick yourself up and get back into the fray.  Just don’t make the same mistake twice.

While most companies talk about the advantages of risk taking, many don’t walk the talk.  Instead, some organizations simply get rid of those who had the misfortune to make a mistake.  In such an environment there’s always someone out there waiting for you to fail (passive resistors, nay-sayers, the overly critical, etc.), or to take advantage when you stumble (enter the political animal).  All of which sends a powerful message that risks are only entertained when in fact they aren’t risks at all.

On the other hand, creativity and innovation will be fostered in an environment that nurtures decision-making, that encourages measured risks as a method of stretching oneself.  Instead of killing the risk-taker when they stumble such organizations seek to stretch the capabilities of their employees by encouraging them to do more than they thought themselves capable. 

After all, it’s only a risk if there’s a chance of failure.  Managers who are not afraid of making decisions, of standing up for themselves, of taking a chance for the good of the organization - they should be valued, not criticized or otherwise penalized.

In an atmosphere free of threats and political quicksand the leader can emerge and thrive - to the betterment of the organization. 

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