What it Feels Like to Make a Mistake

I don’t like making mistakes.  In fact most of my professional life has been spent in the service of not making a mistake, or being seen not to.

I am not alone; in fact a lot of the practical difficulty in culture change projects is created by people being (understandably) unwilling to move away from a no mistakes / ‘safety first’ style of thinking.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with safety first, it is not always the most helpful approach to problem solving.  Sometimes we need to think creatively, try something new…and risk making a mistake.

Yet so much of the language in organisations is about not making a mistake.  Small mistakes are often cited in appraisals as evidence that someone did not have an outstanding year.  And in comparison to creative thinking,  ‘risk management’ sounds sensible, grown up and professional.  It is easy to pick holes in new ideas.

So a ‘safety first’ culture often prevails where creativity is seen as a luxury and mistakes are punished. This is fine for some kind of problems, but not those which require more than past experience to solve them (what Ron Heifetz calls ‘adaptive change‘).

Therefore, when attempting to help organisations deal with adaptive change, we need to pay attention to how mistakes are treated.  Clearly in this respect senior managers set the tone.

Yet so ingrained is our fear of making a mistake, the main barrier is how we ourselves feel when we make a mistake.  If making a mistake is the admission price for creativity:

What does it feel like to make a mistake?

I have made a number of mistakes recently, so I thought this would be an interesting experiment.  After all, if we are to encourage people to take risks and  accept their feelings about making a mistake, what exactly are those feelings?

In this case the mistake I made was sending an e-mail which contained factual errors.  Here’s what happened next:

  1. The first experience was a nasty, crackling sensation deep inside my stomach, which had a kind of shockwave effect, culminating most noticeably in a sort of pins and needles feeling in my hands, lasting about 5 seconds.
  2. The next moment brought a slight shortness of breath combined with a leaping heart and a racing mind to create a momentary sense of panic.
  3. The next feeling was a realisation that the mistake is real and this came (for me) with feelings of slight nausea lasting about a minute.
  4. Interestingly, my mind then immediately raced into self preservation (i.e. excuses) mode. Can I shift the blame?  Can I make an excuse? I was almost overwhelmed by these thoughts over the next 30 minutes – being aware of them did not seem to matter.
  5. The most noticeable feature was then my mind’s ongoing attempts to try and fix the problem.  Again these thoughts were almost overwhelming and impossible to stop.  (Incidentally this is where I often compound the initial mistake, so overpowering is the desire to fix it immediately).  This is also the period where my mind suggests a number of different lies which might get me off the hook.
  6. Finally I noticed how the mistake had a peculiar ability to haunt me.  For example, I can think about it and right now – sitting here at my comfortable desk – I can experience a kind of ‘after shock’ all over again, with a heart leap thrown in. It is as if my mind is saying ‘you need to remember this because we are not going to do that again!’

If we are to encourage new ways of thinking it seems to me that we need to help people recognise and accept what it feels like to actually make a mistake.  Though this won’t be easy, the alternative is a life lived in the service of not getting things wrong.

Having The Courage To Be Vulnerable

You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery, and I promise you, something great will come of it – Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) in ‘We Bought a Zoo’

When was the last time you committed an act of insane courage?

Emotional vulnerability takes a degree of fierce bravery. You might be hurt or criticised. You risk shame and humiliation. When it goes wrong you might feel like you want to run and hide. The events often play over and over in your mind as you try to work out how you could have avoided the pain.

But vulnerability can also help us to feel closer and more connected to others. We often find that when we share our pain, shame just melts away. We take a risk and ‘something great’ comes of it.

I want to suggest though that vulnerability just for the sake of it isn’t helpful. Vulnerability has to be in the service of something. It might be about love, belonging and joy. It might be part of doing extraordinary work or making a difference in the world. But it has to have a purpose.

Although the nature of vulnerability means that it is risky and takes courage, we can make it a little safer if we:

  • Make thoughtful choices about who to trust, when and with what aspects of our vulnerability.
  • Have clear boundaries and hold people accountable when they cross those boundaries.
  • Listen to our needs.
  • Respect the needs of others.
  • Stay connected to the people we are talking with. Notice their reaction.
  • Check assumptions about what they are thinking. They might be quiet because they are horrified but it could also be because they are deeply moved.
  • Increase resilience to the painful thoughts and emotions that come along with vulnerability. (You will be surprised to read that Acceptance and Commitment Training is helpful for this!)

I am running a low cost session on The Courage to Be Vulnerable at The Relaxation Centre of QLD on Sunday 16th September 2012 ( All proceeds go to the centre). If you happen to be in Brisbane on that day do come along. I would love to meet you.

Creating Great Mentoring Relationships


Last night I spoke at an event held by the QUT Career Mentors Scheme. They were a great group of people – the mentees are students about to finish their degree and the mentors volunteer their time to support the students as they make the transition from study to work.

I shared some ideas on how to create great mentoring relationships, particularly how to avoid mentoring relationships that lack vitality and are….frankly boring.

Here is the handout that goes with the talk: How To Create Great Mentoring Relationships


How to Build A Cooperative Team

Whenever we work in a team there is a tension between getting the outcomes we want and contributing to the outcomes that others need.

If I spend time giving John the information he needs to get his board paper written, then I might have to delay my meeting with my direct report, Sarah, and as a result she doesn’t meet her deadline. I will need to trust that, at some point in the future, John will return the favour.

Humans are incredibly good at quickly recognising whether to cooperate with others or whether to just look out for ourselves. Within minutes of joining a group we size up the situation and adjust our level of contribution accordingly. We have learnt this skill because being cooperative in a competitive environment is a really bad idea.

David Sloan Wilson has been doing some cool research on this in his home town of Binghamton. He has found that the culture of the suburb where teenagers live determines to a large extent how prosocial they are (i.e. how readily they will take voluntary actions to benefit others, such as sharing, comforting, helping, rescuing). If teenagers move from a harsh suburb to a more nurturing environment, they often become more prosocial.

It looks like certain environments encourage people to be cooperative, trusting and kind and other environments don’t.

So what does this mean for you and your team? If your team aren’t very cooperative; it may not be because they are selfish or difficult; it may be because the environment isn’t set up to encourage prosocial behaviours. How do we create those environments?

Press conference with the laureates of the mem...
Press conference with the laureates of the memorial prize in economic sciences 2009 at the KVA: Elinor Ostrom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his work with groups at Binghamton, Sloan Wilson uses Elinor Ostrom‘s design principles, which are:

  1. Strong group identity and purpose
  2. Clearly defined boundaries
  3. Getting rewarded for contribution. Members of the group agree a system that rewards people for their contribution to group outcomes
  4. Group members create their own ground rules and make group decisions by consensus
  5. Monitoring – a process to check for free-riding or active exploitation by individual group members
  6. Graduated consequences for inconsiderate or selfish behaviour
  7. Mechanisms for fast and fair conflict resolution which are cheap and easy to access
  8. Local Autonomy – The group (and subgroups within the larger team) have some authority to manage their own affairs
  9. Where the group is part of a larger system, they are organized as multilayered nested enterprises. Each group has its own governance that fits within the larger group. Local efforts are linked together.

Ostrom found that groups that have these principles in place are more likely to work together to look after group resources rather than compete for and ultimately deplete them.

Sloan Wilson has been applying these principles to create changes in schools and neighbourhoods with surprisingly good effect.

My experience is suggesting they are helpful for workplace teams too.

Sadly Elinor Ostrom passed away on June 12th. My hope is that her contribution will live on, helping us to improve the way we interact with each other and the world.

How Promising Managers Sometimes Derail Their Careers…and How to Prevent It

According to The Centre for Creative Leadership almost 1 in 2 of the managers who have the makings of success fail to reach their potential. They ‘derail’ and are either demoted, fired, plateau or opt for early retirement (William A Gentry).

There seem to be some key problems that cause this derailment:

  • Failing to build effective interpersonal relationships
  • Showing poor team leadership
  • Having problems adapting to changes in the environment
  • Lacking growth and development in the face of the changing demands of their role
  • Failing to meet business objectives (due to either failing to follow through or being overambitious )
  • Maintaining a narrow focus, so that they aren’t able to supervise outside of their area of functional expertise

What seems to happen is that these managers are defensive in the face of challenging feedback, don’t learn from their mistakes and don’t identify and address their weaknesses.

Why do they do that?

I suspect that they lack self-compassion. Self-compassion makes it easier to be open to difficult feedback; learn from mistakes and admit failings. Self compassion can probably be increased*.

These managers also need to get better at noticing when their approach is ineffective and then quickly adjusting their behaviour. A starting point here may be to learn to become more mindful and psychologically flexible.

So, if you are a beginning manager, it might be good to focus on becoming more mindful, flexible and compassionate.

* For readers based in Brisbane, I am running a low cost public workshop on self-compassion on Sunday 6th May 2012.

What Facebook Can Teach Managers About Building Engagement

Facebook is amazing at building and maintaining engagement. From a behavioural science perspective, Facebook is set up in a way that encourages engagement. How does it do it and what can it teach us?

1. Facebook makes it very, very easy to give positive feedback. In fact, it isn’t just easy, it is actually feels good to click the ‘like’ button (or is that just me?).

Research suggests that team members need around 3 pieces of positive feedback for every piece of negative feedback. Not many employees are getting even close to that. So when you are reviewing a piece of work, find some way to communicate all the things you like about what has been done rather than just focussing on what needs to be changed.

2. On Facebook (and in life), feedback shapes behaviour. We notice what behaviour seems to get a lot of positive feedback and what gets ignored and over time we change our behaviour. At work, desired behaviour is often ignored, apart from occasional larger gestures – an employee of the month award; a bonus at performance review time; an acknowledgement in the team meeting. In terms of behavioural psychology, what happens on Facebook is much more powerful. Aim to give positive feedback, frequently and real-time, don’t worry if it is just small. Think of the ‘like’ button!

3. Facebook understands that people crave connection and that connection is important in building engagement. Gallup found something similar in the workplace, they found that ‘having a best friend at work‘ is associated with improved performance. We also know that leaders who focus too much on getting the task done and ignore the importance of encouraging team members to build relationships tend to have dissatisfied and disengaged teams. So what can Facebook teach us about how to build connection?

4. Facebook understands that what actually builds connection is lots of little interactions about ordinary things. Sharing a joke. Saying how tired you feel because the kids have been up in the night. Sharing something you find interesting. So, those chats in the office kitchen aren’t time wasting (unless they go on for hours!) – they are building connection and engagement.

So, to get Facebook-like engagement, managers might want to build some habits around giving frequent positive feedback, encouraging people to create connections with each other and valuing those chats in the staff kitchen.

The Problem With Work-Life Balance

I think the concept of ‘work-life balance’ is deeply flawed.

The phrase suggests that:

  1. Work and life are somehow different. Now, that is patently stupid. If you aren’t feeling alive when you are working, then your problem isn’t lack of work-life balance. You probably need a good career coach – I hear that this fellow is quite good.
  2. There is a state where everything is in balance and there are people who have achieved that state. I have honestly never been in that state. have you? Do you know anyone who has been in that state?

I think a much better strategy involves a fundamentally different approach.

(Enjoying the Beach with Albert – Two valued domains (Relationship and Health) at the same time!)

1. Instead of just balancing work and life I think the task is much more complex. We need to work on balancing different life domains (or what Kelly Wilson would call ‘Domains of valued living’). Most of us have a few of these. Mine are: family, work/achievement, learning, friends, relationship, health and wellbeing, contribution/community.

2. It would also help to view ‘balance’ as a verb  – ‘balancing’. An ongoing process that involves:

  • Deciding on the areas of life that matter to you and what values and actions you want to take in each area.
  • Noticing how you are doing over time. Getting better and better at noticing when you are focussed too much on one area of life and neglecting other important areas…and then making a correction.

You can take the Valued Living Questionnaire here to see how you are going in balancing your life.

Getting Some Distance From Your Thoughts – Even If It Is Only Half an Inch

Most of us live in a culture that gives the message that our thoughts control our actions. This assumption seems benign but it actually creates a problem for us. The problem is, if we treat this assumption as true, then, if we want to be successful, we have to first get our thoughts ‘right’ (‘I am capable of being a great team leader’; ‘I will do a good job of giving this feedback’; ‘I am going to write a really good blogpost’) and that is actually really hard. I tell myself ‘I am capable of being a great team leader’ and my mind says ‘Yes, but what about the time you...’

A more useful approach is to build our capacity to observe our thoughts and then choose which thoughts to act on and which ones to just let play in the background. To get some space between ourselves and the endless stream of thoughts our minds come up with.

The more skilful we can become at observing rather than acting on our thoughts, the more freedom we have to take actions that create the outcomes that are important to us.

Gilbert sharing some interesting view on creat...
Elizabeth Gilbert (Image via Wikipedia)

In this beautiful TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert, (author of Eat, Pray, Love‘)  explores the strategies she used to get some distance from thoughts that were plaguing her that her ‘greatest creative success was behind her’ and ‘creativity is inherently linked to anguish’.

As she explores these idea’s, she uses the gorgeous phrase:

‘You look at it even from half an inch away’.

It is in that space. The space between you and your thoughts, even if it is only half an inch, that freedom can be found*.

When that space is available to you during your next feedback conversation, you can be present with the other person. You can really notice their responses. You can observe your own behaviour and shift it from moment to moment as you see what is and isn’t working. And in the background your mind is gabbling away –  ‘She is going to hate me’; ‘This is going terribly’; ‘I hope I can get out of here soon’; ‘What if she puts in a bullying complaint against me’ and having those thoughts is okay because it is just your mind doing what minds do and you don’t have to pay it a lot of attention.

(*For any ACT experts out there – this is a quote from someone but I can’t remember who! Let me know so that I can credit them!)

How Can We Build Others Motivation to Change their Behaviour?

At work, we often need to encourage others to change their behaviour. It might be the co-worker who repeatedly misses deadlines; the direct report who is irritable with stakeholders, or, our boss who isn’t delegating well to us.

Our instinct is to try asking (or telling!) the person to change. Explaining to them why we want them to change. If we are really good at ‘selling change’ then we might even explain to them the benefits of changing.

A therapeutic technique called Motivational Interviewing suggests a different approach.

William Miller came up with this approach when he discovered that some therapists do a much better job at helping their clients to change compared to others. He then studied the differences between the effective and ineffective therapists and found that the highly effective therapists:

  • Were good at empathic listening and were genuinely interested in understanding the client’s perspective
  • Coached their client’s to explore the pros and cons of change and helped them to make their own decision about whether they wanted to change
  • When the client resisted the idea of change, the effective therapists ‘rolled with that resistance’ rather than arguing with the client
  • Had a respectful stance
    • Honoring the client’s autonomy – the client gets to choose whether they change or not, and as adults, they take responsibility for the consequences of their choice
    • Viewing the client as the expert in their own life. They didn’t talk down to the client but took a collaborative approach where they worked together to figure out what to do next

Miller found that in the sessions that had the best outcomes, it was the clients who were describing the benefits of the change rather than the therapist.  The clients came to their own decision that they wanted to change. It was only at this point (when the client started to say ‘I want to change..’ or ‘I am going to change..’) that effective therapists started to help the person to make a plan for how they would go about changing.

I know that when I apply this to my own life, I am much more likely to commit to change if the other person takes this approach with me – but perhaps I am just a contrary Derbyshire lass!

The collaborative, respectful approach used in motivational interviewing fits well with the approach taken by a good ACT practitioner.

An ACT practitioner helps clients choose their own values rather than values that society or significant others might want the individual to adopt.

ACT practitioners have the stance that we are all dealing with our own difficulties – the ACT practitioner isn’t the expert who has it all sorted.

An ACT practitioner works to help the client see the reality of their situation and then make decisions taking this information into account.

Both ACT and Motivational Interviewing are empirically supported approaches shown to help people make important and often challenging changes in their lives (from giving up drugs to losing weight) and they seem to be saying similar things about the best stance for the practitioner to take.

Perhaps there is something for all of us to learn here?

Perhaps, next time we want some else to change their behaviour, it might be helpful to start by being genuinely interested in their viewpoint. What if we were really curious about understanding how the current approach both is and isn’t working for them? What if we respectfully explored whether the person sees any benefits in changing their behaviour? Perhaps we might discover that they are less likely to dig their heels in and resist us? They might even be more inclined to work collaboratively with us to create a better outcome that meets both of our needs.

Stop Wasting Time

Our lives are terribly short and we are fragile creatures. Wasting the time we have seems wrong. But how do we decide whether we are wasting time?

I watched the movie ‘Click‘ the other night. Not a movie I would recommend to you but at it’s heart was a really good point. It is easy for us to live our lives wishing we could fast forward through the boring bits and the painful bits. But hidden in those moments is the potential for meaning and purpose.

Hank Robb recently suggested writing down every evening what you did that day that was, in your opinion, time ‘well spent’ and also what you will do tomorrow that will make that day worthwhile. This is a wonderful suggestion.

I would like to add some ‘Click’ inspired questions:

1. As you decide whether something is or is not time ‘well spent’ think about the internal rules you use to discriminate between wasted time and time well spent. We often make the same mistake as Adam Sandler’s character and view working and achieving as time well spent whereas a whole raft of research suggests that time spent on family, friends and community is what gives life meaning.

2. Is it possible that something that seems like wasted time could become meaningful if you approached it with openness and curiosity? Listening to a loved one? Eating? Parenting?

Life is precious – shall we make it count?