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.