One of the greatest fears in the American workplace I see as both a CEO and corporate advisor is the fear of making a mistake. This fear takes many forms. From as simple as blaming others when things go wrong to as onerous as hiding bad news from shareholders, this fear limits our potential and has broad implications for business and society.
Fear of erring is at the root of my greatest leadership mistakes. The good news is that when I remember that mistakes are simply the lessons along the way to gaining my PhD in pragmatic leadership, I can breath a bit easier and let go of the knot in the pit of my stomach. While I’m a bit embarrassed to reveal these mistakes, it’s also cathartic to let the cat of the bag. The mistakes that have brought the greatest long-term gains are:
I know the answer to all your questions. There are times when I am flooded with questions from those who work with me. They are looking to me for the “right” answer to situations they are facing. Along the way, I accepted the belief that it’s the leader’s job to have all the answers. What a burden this is. Over time, I developed an automatic tendency to quickly offer an answer to every question. I did this even for things I didn’t know or was uncertain about. I forgot that it was so easy to say, “I don’t know, let’s figure this out together.” This error not only cuts off contributions others can offer, but paints me into a very small corner.
I need to be perfect. A big brother to having all the answers is being perfect. For a number of years, I had the notion that every action, decision and spoken word needed to be perfect. I had the belief that no mistakes were allowed. Along the way I felt that if I erred I would lose the respect of those who worked for me and all possibility of them coming together as a team was lost. One of the great defects of this mistake is that it puts me in the position of pointing fingers at others, which creates distrust and hides the truth.
I forget to listen. Do you see a theme here? Recognize my behavior in leaders you know? One aspect of being afraid of making a mistake shows up in how we listen. Too often I start developing a response to what someone is saying while they are still talking. I get into this mindset because I want to make sure I have something meaningful to say when they stop talking. The only problem is that they realize I’m not listening. Often the person speaking has the sense that I don’t place importance on what they are saying to thinking.
I don’t see what’s really happening. One of the most challenging aspects of being a leader is making good decisions. An important attribute of successful decision-making is having a clear picture of what's really going on. In my worry about making a mistake, I have perceptions about the current state of things that was incorrect. I think the present is a repeat of the past as a way to have more certainty in my world. The truth is that every situation is unique and if I don’t engage it that way, I will miss something terribly important.
I forget gratitude. We all want to feel appreciated for our good work. I don’t mean getting an award or effusive public praise. We want to feel that what we contribute to our team or organization matters. I know this. Yet too often I get caught up in my own needs to be acknowledged that I don’t look around to the contributions others are making to our shared success. This leads to resentment and makes it very hard to get the team up for the next challenge.
So what can be done to overcome this fear?
First, acknowledge that you experience this fear. All change starts with acknowledging of the current state.
Second, remember that what people want more than you being perfect or knowing everything is authenticity. Being authentic requires allowing yourself to feel vulnerable. Remember you are not going to die if your project team gets off track. So step into your discomfort and let others know that you aren’t sure of the right action, but assure them that together you will figure it out together.
Finally, patience is essential. No matter how earnest you are, you will sometimes still be afraid and your old behavior will happen. OK, see it for what it is, learn the lesson and commit yourself to turning into your fear before you act.
I have seen the positive impact of making these changes. I have a long road ahead and each day, each lesson is the best gift I receive.
Thomas White is Co-Founder and CEO of the C-Suite Network, a network designed to enable thought leaders, CEOs and other c-suite professionals to maximize the potential of peer networks and social media to expand their audience, increase revenue and grow their personal and business brands. http://c-suitenetwork.com.