What's Wrong With Being Wrong?

As many of the readers of this column appear to be Americans based on the comments that get logged periodically, American managers I address you: Why are you so afraid of being wrong? The posturing in our companies to be right, or at least not in proximity of wrong is ubiquitous. It is a sad state of affairs for many. Being wrong can be so right in so many situations.

Our culture has become over burdened with critics and analysts leaving very few doing the work that is under analysis and the target of criticism. It is undeniably easier to wax critically on the efforts of others than it is to be one of the others putting forth the productive effort.

And the critics are never wrong. They have the pure benefit of hindsight and the luxury of no one actually remembering what they said in the criticism (probably because it is useless drivel).

Back then we were taught that "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." I'm not sure what happened to that philosophy. We used to universally understand that trying, failing, and earnestly trying again is all part of the on the job education process. We accumulated our mistakes as merit badges and shared our stories with the young flat bellied newbies as a form of establishing credibility. If you didn't have a pretty major screw-up, you probably hadn't been in the game, so to speak.

It appears we have lost a bit of wisdom about how people learn. We can tell them what we know. They can sit in seminars and training sessions until they slip into wide eyed comas. But until an associate is handed real responsibility with real consequences and little or no safety net, none of the training transitions from theory to experience.

I am reminded of a story I heard from a boss decades ago, over and over for as long as we worked together. He had been a junior loan officer in a finance company. He had just been given a broader lending authority and made his biggest loan ever, $100,000. This was back in the late 1950s and that was a lot of money.

In a very short period of time, the loan defaulted and the finance company had a complete loss. My boss walked into the president's office shortly after the loss was recorded and handed in his letter of resignation. The president of the company tossed it in the trash can. He said, "Sorry, I am not accepting your resignation. I just spent $100,000 educating you."

What do you think happened to the loyalty of my boss to his boss at the time? Through the roof. What do you think happened when the next big loan file came in? Trust me, the same mistake was not made again.

We have to make it OK to be wrong in our companies. If we want people to learn, grow and know that we trust and value them, we have to support them while they are finding their way and gaining experience. Allowing people to grow and learn from mistakes with our support may be the best retention strategy available.

As managers, we have to be courageous enough to try things that we aren't sure we can do and fail in front of our people. There is a lot to be gained for both the manager and the associates when the manager acknowledges a mistake, shakes it off, and strides confidently forward. The message that trying and learning is supported in your company is a powerful message indeed.

Our people don't expect or want us to be perfect and without error. They want us to be courageous, honest, clear, and committed to the stated direction. Mistakes happen. We are all wrong once in a while. We are human. By design, we are meant to learn and adapt.

Become immune to the critics. Who needs them? Become the role model of putting yourself out there and inspiring your people to stretch, learn, fall down and get up. Your people will love you for it and you will love being their leader.