Lesson Learned: Don’t Make Waves?

The dangerous way up from Go Haceem blog

Desirée Rogers has been on my mind lately. She was the White House social secretary who was forced to resign because some publicity hounds crashed a state dinner. I understand the security problems involved, but it’s the mistake part I’m interested in. In my newsletter (you can subscribe by clicking on the Yahoo button over on the right side of the blog) I said that her mistake was sitting down at the dinner, trying to be one of the cool kids, when her job was something else. (I’m still not clear how come a security error wound up in her lap. I suspect it was because she sat down at the State Dinner and that rankled.)

One of the newsletter readers made a brilliant observation–Desirée Rogers should have been allowed to stay because she would never, ever make that mistake again, would have learned something valuable, and would have been a better employee.

I’m a big proponent of learning from mistakes, it’s unfortunately the way most of us learn best. We never think, “Wow, that presentation really went well. Was it because I practiced or because I decided not to use a PowerPoint or studied up on potential questions?” Nope. If we do well, we feel lucky. But we learn more from mistakes.

Those people who don’t make mistakes are people who aren’t trying hard enough. Or who hide their mistakes or blame them on others. And those people, in many corporations, and in the government, are often the people who rise to the top. Or maybe I should say “float” to the top. By dodging mistakes, they look blameless. Notice I said blameless, not faultless. They dodge and weave the effects of their mistakes. Because they make lots of mistakes–everyone does–they learn how not to get caught. Then they believe the problem is getting caught, not making a mistake. Admitting the mistake would teach them something. Instead, they bury their learning experience. I’d respect someone who made a mistake and admitted it and knew how to fix it and prevent it.

Yes, some horrible person could have snuck into the state dinner and caused harm. The Secret Service and security is there to prevent that, not the social secretary. But consider corporations–middle managers are punished for mistakes they could learn from. Fired, in some cases. They learn to cover up to get another job. What does that teach them? Exactly my point–you get car recalls only when the cover up is discovered, not before.

It would be an excellent idea if corporations encouraged mistake-learning early, and promoted people who solved their own problems and had the integrity to admit mistakes and the problem-solving ability to prevent them from happening again. That’s someone to admire and promote.

Quinn McDonald is a trainer, writer and artist who is writing a book on journaling.

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11 responses to “Lesson Learned: Don’t Make Waves?

  1. Interesting perspective! Unfortunately, people who admit to mistakes are always passed over. It is these seemingly blameless people who have learnt not to get caught who wnd up at the top. And god they do gloat!!!

  2. It’s so much easier to get rid of the little guy. Not as many feathers to ruffle, not as many I owe you’s or pay off s either. But then maybe I;m being cynical of what I think of as the political world.

  3. A nice, thought-provoking post.

    What do you think about people who make mistakes and admit to them as soon as they realize it? I did this very recently with a huge mistake (really, lots of little ones piled into one huge mistake) and I owned up to them, but other people I know thought that I shouldn’t have outlined them as I did (i.e. being forever anal, I put them into a spreadsheet). I feel I did the right thing for my clients and came clean, but knowing the types who “never” make a mistake don’t do this, it bugs me.

    I have to say, I DID learn a lot from the experience and I do feel for Desiree. Sometimes, you aren’t given the chance to prove you’ve learned from a bad experience.

    • Desiree got thrown under the bus for a lot of reasons, not least among them that she was different and ambitious. You did the right thing, admitting it. Because you wanted to be up front and fix what you could.

  4. After observing corporate culture for far too long, what I also see is that mistakes of someone who is part of the “in” crowd are brushed off, even if they’re big, but minor mistakes of those who challenge the status quo, groupthink, what have you, get really magnified. Rogers’ biggest sin is that she was an uppity black woman, methinks.

  5. I agree completely. I also don’t think she should be held responsible. This is the WHITE HOUSE, why is security left to the social secretary? Shouldn’t that be, oh, I don’t know, say…the FBI!!!! CIA???? Did she hire and outside firm to work those events or were they government payroll? If she hired them, that’s one thing. If we use outisde services to secure out White House, that’s just a shame. If these were US government security employees, why leave the blame on the person who is responsible for protocol and invitations.

    • I think she was to be available to ID last-minute additions and wasn’t. Still, the Secret Service should know better than to say, “Oh, you aren’t on the list but want in?” and then OK it. Sounds like the wrong person got dumped.

  6. Hi Quinn,

    Well, some horrible people did sneak into the state dinner… But I agree with you, Desiree Rogers big mistake was hobnobbing as a guest rather than managing as a staffer.

    Great post about learning from mistakes. I’m readying Celebrating Failure right now, and it’s all about lessons learned–and learning from them.

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