Professional development involves making mistakes

Why making mistakes is important to professional development.

It’s easy to think that making mistakes will cause major problems, but they seldom do. Making mistakes is something we were accustomed to as children, but as adults making mistakes has slowly become something to avoid at all costs. I wanted to explore why making mistakes is critical to both personal and professional growth so managers and teams can see mistakes for what they are - an opportunity to learn.

We learn from mistakes

It’s easy to think that making mistakes will cause major problems, but they seldom do. Making mistakes is something we were accustomed to as children, but as adults making mistakes has slowly become something to avoid at all costs. I wanted to explore why making mistakes is critical to both personal and professional growth so managers and teams can see mistakes for what they are - an opportunity to learn.

We learn from mistakes

Mistakes are minor errors made along the way, which could have big consequences. Consequences often have negative connotations, but a mistake can also be a happy experience, with the result being a new product, service or opportunity to learn for both yourself and the team. Most small mistakes can be corrected before there is a significant impact. These mistakes can be called QA or QC in production businesses or an office. A manager may pick up such an error when checking their team’s work before presenting it to a client.

What level of mistakes can you make?

Managers often suffer the most from mistakes, and even more so if their team makes a mistake that they miss before a client finds it. But why are mistakes such a problem? Often, our ego doesn’t like us making mistakes because it means we admit we might have been sloppy or forgotten to follow a well-documented process. Mostly, mistakes should be treated as they are, a genuine error that got through many regular checks or human error.

Mistakes made at a junior level are usually not a problem. These mistakes are fixed by a mentor or a manager well before a client sees them. When a junior employee makes a mistake, it’s a learning opportunity or a chance to find an error in our documented process.

Mistakes made at a senior level are often viewed as bad. When a senior employee makes a mistake, we think it could be a disaster. If the dictionary defined a mistake as a misjudgement, we might rightly believe mistakes are bad, but what if we redefined a mistake as an oversight or a bad day. Such a definition might allow us the same grace at a senior level that we afford an employee who has just started with us.

Delegated responsibility

How do you delegate responsibility without introducing mistakes everywhere? Delegation is pretty simple if you follow some essential steps:

  1. Work out what you want to delegate.
  2. Decide what responsibilities a team member has and when they may need to seek approval.
  3. Write the necessary process (or my favourite, have them write it as you train them).
  4. Follow the proven teaching approach of show, do together, observe to get the team member up to speed. Throwing someone in the deep end seldom works, and if you want to build confidence, the last thing you should be doing.

Half the battle is deciding what to delegate and to whom you will delegate it. Once you’ve worked that out, you can quickly train and develop your team’s responsibilities and capabilities.

Owning up to your mistakes helps you grow

First, modelling owning mistakes, then encouraging your team to own their mistakes will help them grow faster. As leaders, we often struggle to manage the fall-out from mistakes well. We tend to overreact to others' mistakes and minimise the visibility of our own mistakes. Both of these things diminish your clout as a manager. Instead, as a manager, you should own your mistakes by making them visible and demonstrating it’s ok to make mistakes and that you’re willing to make them and learn from them. Most good managers and leaders have a coach, consultant or advisor - someone they trust to share their failures with and help them through leadership challenges. You can be this person to your managers and team, helping them through the tough parts of managing others or learning to take on more responsibility for themselves.

Instead of making mistakes being something to worry about, view mistakes as a chance to teach and coach others. Mistakes will happen; it’s how you react to them that matters to most. If your team knows that you are willing to make mistakes, they’ll learn it’s not the end of the world when they make theirs either.

Give your team and managers space to make mistakes

As you learn to allow your team to make mistakes, your leadership style will change from the classic and hated micromanager to a servant leadership style. Being a servant leader is easy to say but hard to live. Sometimes as a servant leader, you need to expose your weaknesses or step right back and let others flourish. Allowing others to make mistakes is a small step on the road to servant leadership.

Many of us have seen the classic leader vs boss diagram. A servant leader doesn’t always lead from the front; they instead encourage their team to grow by stepping back and coaching their managers and team to achieve the goal together. Taking that step back, though, isn’t always that easy. If you have a new team or are new to managing a team, you may find this challenging. If you’re managing an existing team, you might find their previous manager was terrible, and they have preconceived ideas about your leadership style. Managing an existing team can be even more challenging if you’re new to management and their previous manager was awful - you’ll get a double-dose of hardship as you learn to manage this kind of team, something I learnt the hard way!

When should you jump in to help, and when should you scold?

Providing feedback to your team isn’t always easy. Some people respond well to feedback (positive or constructive) when others getting the same feedback can react to it. How feedback arrives depends greatly on the person receiving it and how you deliver it.

Reacting to feedback usually shows with some visual reaction, maybe a screwed up face or surprise. A terrible reaction would see the person storm out of your office. How someone reacts may not necessarily be due to your delivery but instead to their current state of mind. If this happens, you need to adjust the way you provide feedback, ensuring the person you’re talking with knows you want to help their professional development. Your feedback should be seen as encouragement - this is not always easy!

Sometimes when we give people feedback, they don’t react but instead internalise it. There are many great tools to help you build better teams, such as Extended DiSC or Cliffton Strengthsfinder. Both of these tools help get inside your team’s head and give you a set of tools to manage them better. Knowing how to navigate different personalities can help significantly in your development as a manager.

Finally, setting expectations

Setting healthy boundaries and expectations of your team is an excellent way to improve your leadership style and means your team enhances the way they engage with each other and clients. Often we set expectations of others but do not communicate them clearly, other times, we don’t set them at all! The same applies to boundaries. If we naturally say “yes” to everything, we don’t set limits for others, so they have a habit of expecting more and more from you because they know you cannot say “no”. A simple expectation setting exercise can go a long way to set healthy boundaries and expectations of others in your team and the same of you.

Putting this all together.

Making mistakes is human. Delegating, coaching and mentoring help provide a safe place to make mistakes with minimal impact on others. Setting boundaries and expectations that are clearly understood by all who set them will mean relationships are clear. Providing feedback that encourages growth rather than knocking down your team will all work together to grow fantastic teams that make fewer mistakes.

Doing this might seem simple, but it’s an ongoing process. Both you and your team will continually be learning, pushing new boundaries and need to re-assess your progress in systems, processes and growth. As a business owner and manager myself, I don’t believe we’ll ever stop growing.

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