Reactions to Mistakes

Mistakes is a topic I’ve written about fairly often – after all, to err is human, and businesses are run by people. However, as reactions to mistakes can often be the difference between success and failure, it bears frequent mention.

Around the office where I work, we were discussing the story of an employee, who made a mistake that resulted in losing his employer ten million dollars. He went to his boss, Tom Watson, and expected to be fired for his costly error. However, the response was far from what he was expecting – he was told: “Fired? Hell, I spent $10 million educating you. I just want to be sure you learned the right lessons.

Perhaps the story is somewhat of an extreme example – after all, how many people could justify a loss of that magnitude. Additionally, making such a statement involves a large amount of emotional control, considering what prompted the statement. However, there are still lessons to be learned from this.

Punishment for a mistake is generally a function of an emotional response to the situation. As such, while it may feel good to take such action, it does not really solve any problem. That being said, if the lesson of the mistake was not learned, then it would be prudent to prevent a recurrence by whatever means deemed necessary. But, the consequences are not of making the mistake per se, but rather of failing to learn.

Life is all about learning from mistakes – and in business, people who learn from their mistakes are important to have around. With someone who has not erred, you do not know how they will react to having made a mistake. As such, I would choose to keep people around me who confess to their errors and learn from them over people who I don’t know if they’ve ever made a mistake, let alone been able to learn from them.