We all make mistakes.
It’s something we learn in preschool; yet somewhere down the road, something changes. What was once part of a routine matter of exploration and discovery becomes something to be avoided. The stakes get higher. The potential shame of failure becomes too great, and we become risk-averse. Leaders in particular feel pressure to project strength, Inspire Confidence™, and show no weaknesses. But more often than not, that strategy backfires: if people believe in the superhuman image, they may become blind followers with unrealistic expectations; if they don’t, your inauthenticity undermines your credibility. And regardless of how it affects your ability to lead, projecting perfection contributes to a high-pressure culture where people are afraid to make mistakes, or to take responsibility when they inevitably do.
Everyone, from executives to managers to part-time interns, can lead the way in changing our culture from one that puts pressure on everyone to be perfect, to one that accepts mistakes as part of life and encourages them as learning opportunities.
- “How are you” isn’t a greeting; it’s a question.
Good leaders invest in their communities’ well-being. Make time to ask people how they are, and mean it: wait for them to respond. As a leader, you need to start small. In a high-stress or low-trust environment, people may be skeptical of your motives. You can build trust by being honest and open with them, too, and showing them it’s safe to talk about personal topics. “One of my kids is sick this week and that’s adding a bit of extra stress,” or “I’m struggling a bit with some of what’s going on in the world right now, but trying to focus on making a difference where I can.”
- Meet people more than halfway.
Trust is at an all-time low in every facet of our society. The workplace is no different. As a leader, it’s your job to show your commitment to your team: you have to meet them more than halfway. Hedging– or using phrases such as “but I might be wrong,” or “that’s just my interpretation”– can go a long way to level power dynamics between leaders and their teams. Building trust doesn’t happen overnight. If asking for feedback, show you’re open to criticism by making room for your own mistakes.
- Apologies are opportunities. Use them every chance you get!
Once you’ve created a culture of trust and mutual respect– and taken off the pressure of pretending to be perfect all the time– when you make a mistake, apologize for it. A good apology requires three things: (1) acknowledging your error to the audience who was witness to it, (2) recognizing and expressing remorse for the consequences of your mistake whether you intended them or not, and (3) correcting the mistake and promising to do better next time.
“Our team-building activities are usually Happy Hours, but someone pointed out that choice excludes people who don’t drink or can’t commit to events outside of work hours. I’m sorry for not considering that in my planning, and especially for making anyone in our team feel unsupported or excluded. In future our events will be during work hours and planned with everyone’s needs and desires in mind.”
We all make mistakes. Learning from them is how we grow. Make space for your own, for others’, and create a healthier, happier workplace.