When do you let them fail? And…for how long?

January 21, 2008

mistakeok.jpgOne of the people in the group of nine I was supervising had an unhealthy (my opinion) obsession with perfection. She just oozed stress when faced with something new. I don’t know if she had lost a job in the past due to a mistake or something but she just seemed to always be on the edge. However, by company standards, she was a great employee – efficient, fast, reliable, and accurate.

Her desire was to earn more money and move into a more senior position. As her supervisor, I wanted to help make that happen and to help her to feel good about learning new things. I also wanted her to relax a bit (in retrospect, that was probably more for me).
One day she gave me some work to look at and I told her it was great. I returned the work with a little post-it that said “remember, it’s ok to make a mistake.” Much to my surprise she attached that post-it to the side of her cubicle.

I felt we had gotten to the point where she was okay with my expectations – that I expected her to make some mistakes when doing something new because it is how she would learn. Making lots of mistakes (practicing) in a small area is how one becomes an expert in that area, right?

So here was a noob being told it’s okay to make some mistakes while doing something new and across from her a veteran employee making more mistakes than her. He’d been there longer than most in the department – me included. Somehow he had slipped through the cracks. He had become a problem. How did this happen? At some point he had crossed some line where mistakes were not expected – at least not with any level of frequency.

I’m reminded of this situtation because last week I sat in a parent/teacher conference to address my son’s poor performance in a <irony>research</irony> class. I sat and thought (as I have many times before) about this ok-to-fail, not-ok-to-fail quagmire. I simply cannot consistently spoon-feed a teenager throughout high school and hope that he’ll do okay in college and at work right? At some point I have to let him make mistakes and take the conseqences. He knows that he is expected to make mistakes and he knows what is expected of him at school. But for this particular subject, he has crossed the ‘noob’ line. His mistakes should happen less frequently. I guess he needs a post-it note too. I just can’t think right now what that should say.

  • http://www.jarche.com/ Harold Jarche

    It is OK to make a mistake … as long as you learn something from it.

  • http://www.jarche.com Harold Jarche

    It is OK to make a mistake … as long as you learn something from it.

  • Mike

    Two quick thoughts come to mind…
    A co-workers is fond of saying, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying new things.”

    “All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes”–Winston Churchill (not a co-worker)

  • Mike

    Two quick thoughts come to mind…
    A co-workers is fond of saying, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying new things.”

    “All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes”–Winston Churchill (not a co-worker)

  • http://blog.cathy-moore.com Cathy Moore

    On the wall by my computer:

    “There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in”

    From a Leonard Cohen song, I’m told.

  • http://blog.cathy-moore.com Cathy Moore

    On the wall by my computer:

    “There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in”

    From a Leonard Cohen song, I’m told.

  • Maria Hlas

    This may have more to do with the perfectionist example, but I heard this one and confess it home.

    “There is a difference between being right, and being dead right.”

    I heard this in a presentation from Gloria Gery.

  • Maria Hlas

    This may have more to do with the perfectionist example, but I heard this one and confess it home.

    “There is a difference between being right, and being dead right.”

    I heard this in a presentation from Gloria Gery.

  • http://members.optusnet.com.au/rlubensky Ron Lubensky

    I think there are cultural factors related to “fear of mistakes”. Several years ago I workshopped four trainers in Hong Kong relating to Authorware development. Rather than construct a software interaction bit by bit and correct and improve as they went, they were compelled to build from start to finish without testing, and were distressed when it didn’t work perfectly the first time. They couldn’t bear having something “rough” along the way, even if it was only temporary. I also recall an occasion when I didn’t immediately know the answer off the top of my head for a very specific technical question, and had to look it up. I could tell they were disappointed at that. So the normative expectation did not allow for simultaneously being both authority and learner.

  • http://members.optusnet.com.au/rlubensky Ron Lubensky

    I think there are cultural factors related to “fear of mistakes”. Several years ago I workshopped four trainers in Hong Kong relating to Authorware development. Rather than construct a software interaction bit by bit and correct and improve as they went, they were compelled to build from start to finish without testing, and were distressed when it didn’t work perfectly the first time. They couldn’t bear having something “rough” along the way, even if it was only temporary. I also recall an occasion when I didn’t immediately know the answer off the top of my head for a very specific technical question, and had to look it up. I could tell they were disappointed at that. So the normative expectation did not allow for simultaneously being both authority and learner.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Harold – You’ve got me thinking about a discussion I had with a professor on ‘unlearning’ the wrong stuff (bad/illegal behavior). I think we were actually talking about behaviorism and gang members. But that’s a whole different topic. Thanks for your comments.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Harold – You’ve got me thinking about a discussion I had with a professor on ‘unlearning’ the wrong stuff (bad/illegal behavior). I think we were actually talking about behaviorism and gang members. But that’s a whole different topic. Thanks for your comments.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Cathy,
    I like the preceding lines too…

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Cathy,
    I like the preceding lines too…

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Mike – I’m wondering what the traits of that co-worker are…is the person the trailblazer?

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Mike – I’m wondering what the traits of that co-worker are…is the person the trailblazer?

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Maria – True. In the literal sense it’s driving in front of a truck running a red light. (dead right you had the green light). In business, it could mean pissing off the customer.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Maria – True. In the literal sense it’s driving in front of a truck running a red light. (dead right you had the green light). In business, it could mean pissing off the customer.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Great example Ron.

    I had a meeting with my professor last week at school. I sat out in the waiting area because I was 10 minutes early. He came out of his office at the time of my appointment and said I should’ve just come back to his office. I told him I wasn’t sure what the protocol was(it was our first meeting). He then told me about a group of students from Indonesia that waited outside for a full day waiting to talk to him. He didn’t even know they were there to see him. He had walked by them several times over the course of the day…I told him I would’ve only given him 10 minutes…and that’s only because I was playing a game on my handheld at the time.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Great example Ron.

    I had a meeting with my professor last week at school. I sat out in the waiting area because I was 10 minutes early. He came out of his office at the time of my appointment and said I should’ve just come back to his office. I told him I wasn’t sure what the protocol was(it was our first meeting). He then told me about a group of students from Indonesia that waited outside for a full day waiting to talk to him. He didn’t even know they were there to see him. He had walked by them several times over the course of the day…I told him I would’ve only given him 10 minutes…and that’s only because I was playing a game on my handheld at the time.

  • http://www.daveswhiteboard.com/ Dave Ferguson

    Janet,

    Maybe the high-schooler’s PostIt could say two things:

    Good judgment comes from experience.
    Experience comes from bad judgment.

    And

    Not all the experience has to be your own.

  • http://www.daveswhiteboard.com Dave Ferguson

    Janet,

    Maybe the high-schooler’s PostIt could say two things:

    Good judgment comes from experience.
    Experience comes from bad judgment.

    And

    Not all the experience has to be your own.

  • http://ladyonaquest.wordpress.com/ pam

    Janet – I ask my teens two things – do you care?
    did you try your best?
    If they can honestly answer yes to both, I try not to worry about their grades too much.
    One daughter has hovered at (but above) the failing mark in required subjects for years. Always managing to pull a passing score out of a hat at the end of the semester.
    The other daughter stayed on honor roll through high school, then partied or whatevered so much in college that they asked her not to come back…
    Each one will do what they will do – after all, it’s their will not ours!

  • http://ladyonaquest.wordpress.com/ pam

    Janet – I ask my teens two things – do you care?
    did you try your best?
    If they can honestly answer yes to both, I try not to worry about their grades too much.
    One daughter has hovered at (but above) the failing mark in required subjects for years. Always managing to pull a passing score out of a hat at the end of the semester.
    The other daughter stayed on honor roll through high school, then partied or whatevered so much in college that they asked her not to come back…
    Each one will do what they will do – after all, it’s their will not ours!

  • http://webtoolsforlearners.blogspot.com/ Joan Vinall-Cox

    Having watched a child do what she decided to do (or not do) around school assignments, I have to suggest that you have much more power as a supervisor at work.

  • http://webtoolsforlearners.blogspot.com/ Joan Vinall-Cox

    Having watched a child do what she decided to do (or not do) around school assignments, I have to suggest that you have much more power as a supervisor at work.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Dave…very thoughtful. Thanks.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Dave…very thoughtful. Thanks.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Pam & Joan…always great to get advice from parents that has been there.

    It would be easier to play supervisor and just give out performance reviews to my kids (and husband ; )
    but what the heck would mine look like? I’m afraid…especially with running for ‘not mother of the year.’

    I guess if I can show them how to care and how to try (& fail), I’ll at least give them some life skills.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Pam & Joan…always great to get advice from parents that has been there.

    It would be easier to play supervisor and just give out performance reviews to my kids (and husband ; )
    but what the heck would mine look like? I’m afraid…especially with running for ‘not mother of the year.’

    I guess if I can show them how to care and how to try (& fail), I’ll at least give them some life skills.

  • Pingback: Xyleme Learning Blog » Blog Archive » What Everybody’s Talking About()

Previous post:

Next post: