I remember seeing a sign on a business when I was a kid that said something of the following:
"An employee who never makes a mistake, isn’t doing anything. An employee that makes too many mistakes gets fired."
While these two statements seem contradictory, they are based in reality. The first one is something all managers and executives know. Employees will make mistakes. The second one is what all employees fear. They don’t want to make a mistake that costs them their job. Mistakes are one of those tricky management issues that are tough on both the manager and those managed. Having no tolerance for mistakes can create a culture of everyone playing it safe and no new ideas. Allowing too many mistakes cost money that threatens the viability of the of the company.
For many young executives trying to work their way up the corporate ladder the margin for error is small indeed. One mistake, if not fatal can still have devastating impact on their career. We live in a society of perfectionism where we teach our children from a very young age that to be wrong is bad. Whether it is the answer on a test, math problem or where to put a comma, for many students, school is nothing more than a daily quest for the correct answer. We praise an A and tolerate a B or C but a D or F grade is unacceptable. For high achieving kids, perfection isn’t just expected, it’s demanded. Is it any wonder that teen suicide rates in the US have increased 56% in a single decade between 2007 and 2017?
It isn’t just youth that are seeing a push for perfectionism. The workplace is rampant with the pressure to always be right. If you are wondering about the pressure you are facing, try answering this perfectionist test.
1. Have you ever been negatively impacted for a mistake you’ve made at work?
2. Have you seen others at your company punished in their careers for making a mistake?
3. Is being right something that is praised by company leaders?
4. If you felt an idea had less than a 60% chance of being right, would you hesitate to propose it?
5. Do you feel that accuracy is expected more than creativity?
6. Do you feel you spend more time defending your ideas than you do testing your ideas?
7. Do you seek to find fault with ideas that contradict those you’ve promoted?
8. Does your company keep track of mistakes in employee files?
9. Do you feel that being right on an issue will improve your standing with your boss?
10. Is getting credit for your ideas important to you?
The more yes answers you have to the questions above, the higher the pressure you are putting on yourself to always be right.
· If you answered yes to all 10 questions indicates extremely high pressure to be right.
· If you answered yes to 7 or 9 questions the pressure to be right is very high.
· If you answered yes to 4 or 7 questions the pressure to be right is high.
· Anyone who answers yes to 2 or 3 of the questions you have some pressure to be right.
· If you only answered yes to 1 question there may be too little pressure to be right.
You may have noticed that many of the above questions are personal and relate to how you feel. It is very common for people to put more pressure on themselves to be right than the company leadership does.
In our study of more than 5,000 teams trying to solve complex problems, we’ve seen a lot of mistakes. It is quite common for teams to make more mistakes than finding solutions. One interesting observation we’ve made is that those teams that are willing to promote and test ideas quickly regardless of likelihood of being correct tend to solve more problems in less time than those that only try an idea if they think it has a high likelihood to be correct.
One of the greatest baseball hitters of all time was also known for striking out. Babe Ruth had 714 home runs, but he also had 1,330 strikeouts. In those 1,330 strikeouts he missed the ball 3,990 times. We don’t know how many times he might have missed the ball in the at bats that he ended up hitting the ball, but it is still clear that the number of misses far exceeded the number of hits. We also know that the only way to hit a home run is to take a strong swing at each good pitch. Tentative swings will not get the ball over the wall no matter how good the pitch is. Swinging at every pitch regardless of their quality is not a good idea either because even if we hit a bad pitch, the ball is likely to not go where we intended.
Recently I observed a team trying to solve a problem near the end of a session as time was about to run out. They were working on a logic puzzle to find the order of button presses in the room. They had enough of the puzzle solved that they knew about half the order. Rather than testing their findings on the buttons, they instead opted to solve the problem on paper. They spent the last few precious minutes writing things down and time ran out before they made much progress. In baseball terms, they never swung the bat. When we entered the room, we had them try to find the correct sequence by testing what they did know. Within about half the time they spent before, they were able to solve the sequence. If they had just stepped up to the plate and started swinging, they would have finished. They were more concerned with making a mistake than they were with solving the problem.
When the fear of making a mistake takes precedence over solving the problem, the entire problem-solving process is slowed if not halted. While correctness is important, is should never be the primary driving force of a team trying to solve a problem.
As leaders, we need to build a culture of swinging by rewarding those who step up to the plate ready to play. Encourage the team's ideas and find ways to test them quickly to see which ones have the most merit. When mistakes are made, learn from them and move on. Often it is the mistake that leads to the victory. Mistakes are victory’s steppingstones.