Nobody likes making mistakes (I know, obvious Karen!), but there’s a big difference to your approach when you’re scared of making them.  There’s the personal fear, but it could also be that your organisation has a “blame culture” where mistakes are frowned upon and people are always on the lookout for a scapegoat.  This would be where mistakes should be covered up or, if it’s absolutely necessary, a “positive” spin relayed to senior management!

The problem is mistakes have a habit of being found out, and if it’s been previously covered up then that has an extremely negative impact on future trust and respect, with others worrying there could be even more mistakes to uncover.  If mistakes aren’t learned from, they can happen time and time again or become significantly bigger, wasting valuable resources and money along the way.  And a fear of failure and reprisals can have devastating effects on the team’s morale, creativity and innovation, which are all needed for a successful future.

So how can we develop our leadership skills to feel comfortable with making mistakes?  It’s not that easy, as experience has often shown us that we can still be treated unfairly by fearful managers even when we take responsibility for and owned up to our mistakes.  However, given that they can happen all the time, we need to ensure that the organisational culture, and you in your leadership role, encourages open discussion and all that can be learned from them.  Here are some thoughts:

Honesty:  To feel comfortable with a mistake and move on, you have to be honest with yourself and take responsibility.  Avoid denial or excuses, deceiving yourself or digging yourself into a greater hole.  But also realise that beating yourself up about a mistake for any length of time gains nothing useful. Take a step back and see the patterns in what you’ve done, question each step and what you could have done differently.  Then decide how you’re going to use this new found knowledge in the future – and do it.

Set the values:  Ensure everyone understands the value of being open to learning and not just about being right.  Encouraging a greater awareness of where and when mistakes can happen, helps people to develop competencies and new skills to think things through.  This in turn helps them build self-esteem and become better equipped to take on new challenges and obstacles.

Re-frame “Failure”:  We can only learn how to deal with failure (and all the emotions that come with it), by experiencing it.  And those that learn early on, and can understand the positive aspects, are better equipped to solve problems and be more effective.  Our past experiences are what help us to understand connections and develop new solutions.  People who work under pressure to never fail will be less effective because they don’t allow themselves to do anything interesting or new, or take calculated risks.

Open and effective communication:  Ensure that you encourage review and discussion of all issues, and for mistakes to be highlighted immediately.  A great deal of time is wasted in organisations by those trying to avoid owning up to mistakes or blaming others.  It’s also OK to say “I don’t know” and to then find out the answer, rather than to mislead through fear of showing that you don’t understand everything.

Listen:  Listen to people around you, seek out feedback from those involved in the work, ask questions and fully hear all the answers (and encourage others to do the same).

Supervision: Equip staff with the correct resources and training, and set expectations including clearly defined tasks, levels of responsibility and when to escalate.  As a leader, whether you like it or not, you are responsible for the outcome of your team and therefore you want to proactively support, challenge and develop all of your employees.  Without the courage to stretch your team, in the knowledge that mistakes can happen along the way, their progress will be limited.

Learning:  When a mistake happens, provide a non-threatening atmosphere to review what caused it and how to avoid it happening again.  Help those involved to learn from their mistakes by getting them to talk through what happened and for them to come up with the ideas to stop it being repeated.  Then together you can introduce new procedures, training, case studies etc.  It is worth highlighting though, that to learn from a mistake, you do not have to hold on to the negative emotion of the actual experience, only the actions/solutions etc that need to be recognised.

Nobody wants to make a mistake, but they are valuable tools to help us develop.  I’m sure we all have mistakes that we have sworn we will never, ever do again, but have learnt a valuable lesson from!  Do you have an interesting mistake to share?  Something that has been burned so deeply into your memory that you’ll never repeat?  It would be great to hear from you.

And if you’d like to find out how executive coaching and developing your leadership skills can help you learn and encourage learning in your team, then please click HERE.



  1. admin

    Thanks to Emma Dewfall (MCIPD) on Linked In:
    I think this is a great article. I totally agree with everything you say. All too often I think that employees, especially in financial services can be so petrified of making a mistake that as you say trust and respect are completely blown to shreds. Being given a supportive environment in which you can learn and not feel scared is worth its weight in gold.

  2. admin

    Thanks to Andrew Pickersgill on Linked In:
    Thanks Karen! An interesting read, and I suppose the valuable lesson learned is simply don’t lie, but in addition to that, and in keeping with the article, I have learned who will, and who will not, respect me for my honesty. Which does not make me dishonest with those I know do not have patience and tolerance for the wisest of us who know, we simply can not know everything… it simply allows me to evaluate the method of delivering my errors.
    Although… I am still thinking of something a little more profound to say, given there are many memorable mistakes to chose from.

  3. admin

    Thanks to Barry Ruston on Linked In:
    We absolutely learn from past mistakes….it creates a distinction in thinking that allows one to understand where they have steered wrong, so that course correction can be implemented. Society has been conditioned to play it safe, don’t make mistakes….the truly successful have learned to play full out, take risks, be willing to make mistakes, learn, grow and move on. Every “mistake” is a stepping stone to future success.

  4. admin

    Thanks to Alissa Searcy on Linked In:
    Every one has made mistakes, and anyone who denies having made a mistake is either super-human or not being totally honest. “When you make a mistake, admit it, correct it, and learn from it.” Stephen Covey

  5. Pingback: Leadership and Teamwork: Playing Your Part | Assiem

  6. Pingback: As a leader, what do you want be remembered for? | Assiem

  7. Pingback: I Definitely Need More Stress In My Job! | Assiem

  8. Pingback: Disappointment Can Damage Morale and Motivation | Assiem

  9. Pingback: Blind Panic and Stress of Presenting | Assiem

  10. Pingback: My Mind-Reading Skills Keep Failing! | Assiem

  11. Pingback: I Can’t Possibly Be Wrong! | Assiem

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.