“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” — Oscar Wilde
Last month, a story from 2021 trended again on the internet about an HBO intern who accidentally sent a test email to thousands of subscribers, sparking a viral response from people sharing their own embarrassing work blunders on Twitter using the hashtag #dearintern.
Public mistakes are often horrifying. One of my team members has a saying I love: “Look at me learning in public!” She offers this with a good amount of self-deprecation and humor when a mistake has been made.
Through #dearintern, people expressed empathy and solidarity, revealing their own stories of workplace disasters to reassure the intern that they were not alone or defined by their mistake. Some people even shared how their mistakes helped them grow and improve their careers.
This story is a great reminder that mistakes are inevitable and failing is a universal part of the human experience. The key is to acknowledge when you make a mistake, learn from it and move on — to understand that failure and mistakes are opportunities for learning, feedback and even creativity.
Whether it’s your mistake or someone else’s, the big question is, can you embody an attitude of compassion and curiosity, and even humor, rather than shame and blame?
As a leadership coach, I have seen how leaders and their teams have benefited from adopting a different mindset towards mistakes and failure to promote engagement, creativity and innovation in the workplace. Here are five strategies to help you do just that:
1. Name it, learn something and move on. It’s not the end of the world if you mess up — as long as you learn from your mistakes and don’t make the same ones repeatedly. Think back to some of the “failures” you’ve had in the past. Didn’t you learn a lot? Can you apply what you’ve learned in this current situation? Although, to truly learn, you may need some distance from the big emotions of a failure to be able to think and see straight.
2. Watch for defensiveness. Defensiveness is a natural but sure sign of a closed mind in the wake of a mistake, and a closed mind isn’t going to help you learn anything. Notice when you feel defensive and take a breath. Then ask yourself: What are you trying to defend? What are you afraid will or won’t happen?
3. Try on a new perspective. I prefer the word “breakdown” to failure. A breakdown means things just didn’t go the way you thought they would, and it caused a surprise or disturbance. Getting upset often isn’t a choice; it’s an automatic emotional response. The key is to build the “muscle” to get through breakdowns because these days you must get better and faster at moving away from unhealthy emotional responses so you can get back up and get going again. To do this, it helps to be able to reframe a breakdown as a learning experience, not a pretext for embarrassment, shame or punishment. Remember also that it’s only a failure if you make the same mistake twice. Know that innovation and creativity inevitably mean taking risks, and it is understood that the risk taker will sometimes stumble.
4. Remember, none of us is as smart as all of us. Take advantage of the tremendous support of mentors and your community. Ask for help from others to test your thinking before taking important actions. Don’t isolate yourself or try to solve a breakdown on your own. Seek help from people you trust to offer advice, feedback or encouragement. A mentor who has more experience or knowledge than you or offers a different perspective or skillset can be helpful.
5. Engage humor. Humor can help reduce stress, improve your mood and enhance your performance. Humor helps you bond with others who might share your frustrations and circumstances. You may have to distract yourself from the problem at hand in order to find your sense of humor, but even that is helpful. Obsessing really doesn’t do much for you.
Be the leader who encourages your team to take risks, explore new ideas, make mistakes and occasionally fail, all of which propel innovation. This isn’t about celebrating poor performance but recognizing that no one’s perfect and mistakes and failure are an important part of life and work. Mistakes don’t need be avoided or feared. They help move you forward, make you interesting and help you learn and grow to become a wiser and more compassionate human — and a better leader.
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