To err is humane

Following the Second World War, US President Harry Truman became incredibly unpopular. In fact, the phrase “To err is Truman” actually replaced the more common “To err is human” in popular conversation at the time.

So I’m not the first to play around with this phrase (though my aim isn’t to put down yet another unpopular politician). Rather, I want to reinforce just what the saying says – we all make mistakes – and then I want to build on that to discuss how we can all benefit from this.

Admit your mistakes

When you are in management, you will make mistakes and your staff will see you do so. But how we handle such mistakes will set the tone for the organisation.

For me, the first principle is that we need to admit our mistakes. Do we want other people to admit theirs? Or do we want people to lie to us? If we don’t own up ourselves, we are hypocrites. Remember, that’s what people will learn from our actions, no matter what our mouths are saying.

Be careful what you punish

Different people have different strengths and some people will struggle when they are put in situations that they are ill-equipped to cope with. For that reason we must be most careful when we handle mistakes.

If we create a culture where blame is the number one game, we will encourage cover-ups and lying and there will no opportunity to learn. We may also lose people who might have gone on to be great team members. After all, if you care and you make a mistake, you will be highly motivated to avoid that mistake in future.

Sometimes, we may find a square peg in a round hole and the symptom is ongoing mistakes. Changing things around so that all of your people play to their strengths can revolutionise an organisation for the better.

All mistakes are an opportunity to learn

One way to do this is to change things to stop errors happening repeatedly. I’m on the board of a large financial services organisation, and one of the key management reports is customer complaints. These are rigorously analysed and we constantly look out for systemic problems. Why? Because this gives us an opportunity to change processes, documentation or training, and stop the problem reoccurring. Over time, that is incredibly powerful, driving down costs and improving customer service.

In fact, the way we each handle mistakes can be our secret weapon. Handling them correctly can result in improvements in all sorts of places we wouldn’t normally consider. 

Humane

Indeed, to err is human, but the way to deal with mistakes is by being humane. 

Play to people’s strengths, encourage openness and honesty, pick people up and encourage them to do better. Analyse systems, documentation and training to find root causes. 

And remember, this isn’t being soft, it’s good business.

Chris Barling is co-founder and chairman of ecommerce software and EPOS systems specialist, SellerDeck.

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