Separating Mistakes from Misdeeds in Performance Management

By Tom Davidson

You’ve probably heard – and may even believe – that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough. So, are we all supposed to start making mistakes to prove we’re trying? And what if we start making mistakes and getting in trouble for them? Then what good is this old saying to your performance review.

Let’s first agree that we’re not talking about the kinds of mistakes where people’s lives and property is at grave risk and that the kinds of mistakes this refers to are more routine day-to-day oversights. With these, I find that people fall into three major camps on the subject. Either they agree completely with the adage (but still struggle to reconcile the need to avoid mistakes while being willing to make them), or they disagree completely for at least two big reasons. First, they believe that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs out of an abundance of caution. Second, they have an expectation of perfection in themselves and in others.

Having an abundance of caution is good, to a point. Having an expectation of perfection is great, to a point. But both of these tendencies can get in the way of quality, productivity, and leadership.

Whenever we do something new or for the first few times, we’re going to make mistakes. Whenever we try to innovate or invent a new way of doing something, we’re going to make mistakes. Whenever we are trying so hard to get something started, changed or accelerated, we’re going to make mistakes. But as leaders, if we stifle mistakes out of an abundance of caution or an expectation of perfection, we tend to slow down or prevent learning, creativity, and productivity.

So, if you struggle with this conundrum, as most of us do, here’s a principle to help you as a leader, a colleague and a parent. It’s this: mistakes are for learning and misdeeds are for consequences. Mistakes are for learning and misdeeds are for consequences helps differentiate a naturally occurring, innocent, well-intended mistake from the flagrant, inattentive, mischievous, or malicious misdeed.

If we don’t differentiate mistakes from misdeeds, we can make two types of errors. First, we can punish someone for making a mistake, thus tamp down their creativity, drive and openness to learning. Second, if we let people off the hook for committing misdeeds, we abdicate a big part of our job as managers and leaders and demoralize those trying to abide by the rules and be good team players.

If you want to think and read more about this subject, pick up a copy of by book, The 8 Greatest Mistakes New Managers Make, and share this principle with others. Understanding the difference between mistakes and misdeeds is the nature of leadership.

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