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Mistakes versus Misdeeds: A principle you can grow with

By Tom Davidson

You might have heard it said that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough, and it’s one of my favorite, difficult topics in leadership!

Before we explore this any further, let me be clear that the kinds of errors that I’m addressing are not the kinds of mistakes that literally put people and property at grave risk, throw caution to the wind, or circumvent safety procedures. I’m talking about the kind of day-to-day mistakes that we all make in the normal course of our jobs and families.

About these kinds of mistakes, I find that people fall into three major camps. Either they agree completely with this premise (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, please get my 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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