Managing Mistakes

Providing employees with the ability to err

As I’ve navigated the management consulting world over the last two years, I’ve had the chance to work for several different people, and lead a few different teams. One of my favorite parts of the job is that you move from project to project - some are a few weeks, others last months or even years - and accordingly move from team to team.

I’ve talked about stress a lot since I’ve started this career, and it’s notoriously proclaimed as “part of the job”. While I believe stress comes from within and nobody can directly cause you stress, there are a few management techniques I’ve observed that make me feel empowered in my role, and others that make me feel anxious and on edge.

While trying to put my finger on these positive techniques and avoid the negative ones for when I lead teams, I think the most important strategy is to provide your teammates with the freedom to make mistakes.

I recently completed a project where mistakes were essentially not tolerated. This was despite the fact we were managing over 1000 moving pieces every week. From the outside, I can understand the strategy of demanding perfection in this scenario: if you start with zero tolerance, mistakes are bound to be made, but less than if you left it more open - aim small, miss small. This makes sense for a process-oriented job, like working on an assembly line or repeating an unambiguous task.

However, as soon as nuance makes its way into the occasion, focusing on perfection stifles creativity and business savvy, and ultimately alters the intentions of the worker. This is exacerbated during a time-sensitive project. When trying to complete a ton of work in a short amount of time, I end up more worried about staying in my lane, rather than thinking critically and providing sage advice to solve the broader problem. Being uptight in the workplace is one of the surest ways to become focused on the wrong details and increase your stress levels (or at least mine).

Conversely, when I’m working for a leader who prioritizes client advisory and understands the benefits of trying new techniques that could result in a short-term error, the working environment becomes more relaxed. With relaxation comes creativity, smart decision making, and long-term efficiency.

In summary, every time I lead a team, I am going to make it clear that making mistakes is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. You can strive for accuracy without it being the primary focus, particularly when providing management consulting services.

Thanks for reading,

Mike