Mistakes – I’ll Show You Mine if You Show Me Yours

Mistakes – I’ll Show You Mine if You Show Me Yours


We sometimes are exasperated that employees (and kids and friends) take criticism all the wrong way!  Today I suggest a way to create a way better atmosphere for facing mistakes and problems.

Here (in blue) is a quick recap of the past 3 weeks on being able to correct without being corrosive (skip the blue bullets to get to today’s kernel, if you wish):

  • Week One: I want to build my people but, but face it: it’s the job of a boss to correct – for quality, alignment, budget, strategy, etc.  True, yet, as I wrote:
  • Week Two: human nature makes us all highly sensitive to criticism, and it’s terribly easy to destroy confidence, initiative and reasonable risk taking with criticism that feels – even it’s not intended to – as sharply critical; therefore I suggested in
  • Week Three: create a context in which people feel greatly supported so  that criticism isn’t the only, or even the major story.  Shoot for a ratio of 5:1 PRAISE:criticism.

Every manager (parent) should clarify for themselves — and repeatedly tell their teams (families) — their philosophy of mistakes.  I’ll propose such a philosophy.  I encourage you to: Use it.  Change it.  Even reject it, but come up with something so people can understand why you’re correcting them and what it means.  I propose this philosophy (and am very open, as always, to your push-back, modifications, etc.):

  1. Nobody knows everything. Nobody is perfect.  So mistakes happen. I make them. You do, too. I’m not going to kick myself or you; that’s a waste of energy. Let’s all get over thinking we can be perfect.
  2. The most important thing about mistakes is to learn from them, so I/we are always getting better. It’s not just that we don’t want to repeat mistakes. It’s that mistakes teach us things we could never know if we hadn’t tried and messed up. Some of my biggest breakthroughs towards success in life have only come out of the lessons of my failures and mistakes. So, a student’s messed up quiz is full of information about how to learn and test better.  A bungled sales call is full of clues about assumptions we had about the product, the client, the sales call itself.  Understanding what went wrong reduces the risk of repeating it, but it also can create whole new and better approaches and opportunities.  And the reverse is certainly true:
  3. Mistakes that are buried, denied, explained away teach nothing.  What a huge waste that is!  I/we cannot learn when we don’t tell the truth about reality. So I’m going to share my mess-ups (as Kouzes and Posner say, “leaders go first”), and I expect you to be open about yours.

What do you think? Would this philosophy help create a more open and learning culture?  Or would it create foolish mistake-tolerance or sloppiness? Anyone tried it at their own organizations? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

As we all work to lead with our best selves,


  • The culture that you have currently discussed, if embraced, works very well. This is the culture of my current work place. We identify all (meaningful) errors, and work through a corrective action process, to help all of us grow and learn to become more successful, ultimately making the company more successful. The environment has allowed for more R & D, and creativity….mistakes will happen, but are embraced as learning opportunities. My last place of employment unfortunately was full of scapegoats, that unfortunately turned inward, and were afraid to explore new opportunities, for fear of the finger-pointing by the owners….thus why I left after 10 years. Stifling creativity would be the demise of this country!

  • Good morning Dan,

    People skills 101; Life skills 101; Adversity skills 101; Leadership skills 101; Being honest 101; Acceptance 101;

    I retired this year from the MDOC and was a cell block officer for m,any years. I learned years ago that if I wanted my cell block to run smoothly, I had to enforce the rules, treat the inmates with respect, lead by example and admitt when I was wrong. Certainly there were prisoners who did not want to accept what was needed to keep the peace however, for the most part, i undertsood I was not perfect either.

    Thomas K. Burke-Mentor

  • Dan, the philosophy you shared makes sense as long as it is lived within a culture that supports it. Such a culture must have it’s foundations in a set of core values that value interdependence, genuine interaction between individuals at all levels of the organization, and the overall wellbeing of the whole (staff, organization, community).

    In other words, the “philosophy of mistakes” has to be an extension of a “philosophy of value” that permeates the entire organizaiton.

  • Dan:

    Everything in this week’s posting resonates like a tight drum in a downpour.

    You say that you will be doing a book-signing at Schuler Books & Music on 28th Street on December 7. (Please correct me if I got that wrong.) I have invited some of my Toastmaster colleagues to join me there.

    It is a commonplace at the Toastmasters club I belong to, Grand Rapids Toastmasters Club 404, to reassure our members that the club is a safe place to come and try out, to fail, to encourage others, and to grow. We do that by listening and giving thoughtful feedback to our fellow Toastmasters. It has been a successful formula for personal growth in speaking and leadership since 1924.


    Vince Schumacher

  • Dan, great points. The organizations I’ve worked in over the past 30 years can be described either as Learning orgs or as Blaming orgs. The Learning orgs operate as you describe: each failure has the seed of an improvement in it, and that’s where the only value is; if you don’t extract the improvement, then the failure was pure cost. Getting that improvement is the essence of a good Corrective Action process.

    The Blaming orgs are only interested in pinning responsibility for the failure on a scapegoat so everyone else can distance themselves from it. As a result of this behavior, they never improve.

    The 5:1 praise to criticism ratio you recommend is also a principle of the Positive Coaching Alliance, see http://www.positivecoach.org.

    Finally: when I try to teach my kids these principles, I get them to understand the 3 Parts of a True Apology. When they start to say “I’m sorry” for something they’ve messed up, we talk about what “I’m sorry” really means: 1) acceptance of personal responsibility for their actions; 2) a sincere expression of regret for the consequences of those actions; and most importantly 3) actions taken to keep from repeating the same mistake again. Without (3), it’s not a real apology, because there’s no learning and no improvement, and you end up apologizing for the same thing again.

    I work in Quality Assurance now after a career in Engineering, and I use these principles every day. If you really want improvement, there’s no other way.

    I have another site to recomend to you: http://fridayreflections.typepad.com/ It’s written by a friend and former manager of mine, and I hope you like it. Thanks for the great blog.

  • When I started my own interior design business 10 years ago without previous business experience, a mentor or formal training, I knew I was destined to make a few mistakes. However, I promised myself that I was only allowed to make any particular mistake ONCE. That’s it. You learn, you pay and you move forward. Learning from mistakes (mine and other’s) has been my 10 year formal education. I’ve paid the price financially as well as with the good ol’ “blood, sweat and tears”. This process has built and refined my operating procedures into a pretty tight system over the years. It continues to evolve and improve…

  • I’m told that the fastest-growing Fortune 500 companies, especially dot-coms, encourage their people to go out and boldly try any number of ideas that might fly and become cash cows and might also fail miserably. The reason is that if one of them makes it big, it covers the cost of all those “mistakes” from which they learned something most important and valuable.

    Unfortunately, bureaucracies don’t work that way. Most are organized to assure that no mistakes are made. Still, government keeps growing. Why? Because legislators continue to demand more and more from the executive branch… and then criticize the executive branch for needing to hire people to accomplish all these unfunded mandates.

    It would be good if elected leaders could see that they or their predecessors have been the unwitting cause of the “big government” that they said they wanted to downsize when running for office. If we are ever to have a balanced budget, they are going to have to figure out how to downsize government–maybe all three branches!

    As Pogo said in a comic strip long ago, they might recognize that “We have met the enemy and ‘they’ is US!”

    Thanks for a good posting today.


    1. There is a God. Admit that I am not he.
    2. Only God is perfect; admit that therefore I am not perfect. (See #1)
    3. I will try to make the best choices I can, but I will make mistakes. I am not perfect. (See #1 & #2)
    4. I will do my best to learn from my mistakes, but I will still make mistakes. I am not perfect. (See #1 & #2)
    5. My mistakes will hurt and harm others, sometimes badly.
    6. I cannot go back and do things over, and so I cannot erase my past mistakes or eliminate the harm I’ve caused. (Thinking about what might have been is just wasted effort. But is there anything I can do now to help?)
    7. I will sincerely apologize to those whom I’ve harmed by expressing my personal sorrow at the harm I caused and forthrightly accepting my responsibility without excuse for the consequences of my actions–then working my way through those consequences without complaint.
    8. I would like those whom I’ve hurt to forgive me. I need God to forgive me. I need to forgive myself.
    9. God loves me. God forgives me when I sincerely repent.
    10. Move on.

  • Jim,
    These are great points. Your children are lucky to have someone who explains to them such core truths. One of the fundamental principles for absolution in the Catholic tradition is that we must have an intention to “sin no more” is a prerequisite.
    Thanks for the links!

  • Scott,
    These are really great statements of life’s realities and possibilities.
    I’m so glad you shared them.
    Is there some attribution? Who penned them?

  • Dan,
    Well, the author of that 10-step guide would be me, inspired by my painful efforts to come to terms with a personal failure.

    This summer I started my own blog focusing on the importance of accepting responsibility for a mistake, the need to avoid blame-shifting and lame excuses, and the importance of making a sincere apology. Feel free to check it out at http://www.acceptingresponsbility.wordpress.com So, because the need to carefully confront and work one’s way through mistakes is a “thing” of mine, your last few blog posts have been of particular interest to me. You’ll get a shout-out in one of my upcoming blog posts.


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