Roll up those sleeves: Mistakes and trust-building.

Preface: This post is Part 3 of my Mistakes are Cool series: Mistakes and trust-building are connected.
Part 1 is here: Mistakes are cool.
Part 2 is here: Let’s Talk Story about GOOD Mistakes.

From our book of the month in October, First Things First:

“In a high-trust culture, honest mistakes are taken for what they are—an opportunity to learn ” It’s not a win for the organization if people are afraid to take risks, if they’re constantly scared of getting shot out of the saddle. People are not truly self-governing unless they are free to fail.

One manager said:

Things come up all the time where independent decisions need to be made. As a manager, I want these people to be fully functioning, empowered human beings, using their best judgment to create their job as they go along. I know that’s the way to get their hearts and not just their hands. The agreement we have is that if they make a mistake, it’s my fault. But if they make it again, it’s their fault. They’re covered to make an empowered decision.”

How does this become real?

When this manager stands behind his word, that “if they make a mistake, [the first time] it’s my fault,” but not in tacit approval, and looking the other way: The manager must lend visible, tangible support. This is where “rolling up your sleeves” and getting involved in creating better solutions becomes meaningful.

How does this look?

It takes the form of creating a completely safe environment for mistakes, where what you say as a manager is what you mean, and is what you demonstrate consistently. First Things First explains this well:

“If the same mistake is consistently repeated, this is an indicator that the agreement may be out of sync with reality. There may be a need for more frequent communication and accountability. Perhaps the situation has changed. Perhaps the expectations are not as clear as you thought. Perhaps new knowledge or a new skill is needed. There are so many reasons why errors may occur that you rarely gain anything by coming unglued when people make a mistake. That one act will send a clear signal throughout the culture of your group or organization—a signal that may snuff out creativity and initiative.”

And negate trust.

However that said, there can be a fine line between the patience required in letting alternatives incubate, and inaction. I often reach back into my early memories of managing 101 and recall Ken Blanchard’s coaching on “situational leadership” He calls the three skills of flexibility, diagnosis, and partnering three of the most important skills managers can use to motivate better performance on the part of the people with whom they work. In doing so, managers go beyond creating a safe environment for mistakes; they build an organization in which people’s contributions are valued. They demonstrate a responsive style which encourages other to take risks and keep learning.

“Situational leadership is not something you do to people, but something you do with people.” — Ken Blanchard in Leadership and the One Minute Manager

When managers are gently, respectfully responsive, and they partner with their mistake-makers, something else quite wonderful happens; there is more talking story!

Real communication happens when people feel safe; open, honest communication is a product of trust too, and that’s where Part 4 of my mini saga on mistakes comes in: Mistakes can fuel deeper communication. We’ll talk story about that soon and wrap this up.


  1. says

    Is it right or is it Right?

    … Rosa Say, in her book, “Managing With Aloha,” has a section in her chapter on humility entitled, “Mistakes Are Cool.”
    But there is a difference between a mistake and an act of sabotage. Sabotage is done because of intent to be malicious. Mista…