Stop Worrying About Mistakes and You'll Make Fewer

Last Updated Jan 21, 2011 5:48 AM EST

The business world has a complicated relationship with mistakes. For obvious reasons, errors are a drag -- they can annoy your customers, hurt your bottom line and tick off the higher ups. On the other hand, it's also become a business truism that you have to take risks, and therefore open yourself up to mistakes, to really succeed.

The fact that mistakes are both necessary and undesirable may seem like a complete contradiction, but Under30CEO sees things differently. Psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Heidi Grant Halvorson explained on the blog recently how giving yourself permission to make mistakes actually results in fewer of them. She prescribes a slight change in how we think about goals to reduce stress and errors, all in one go:

Studies show that when people feel they are allowed to make mistakes, they are significantly less likely to actually make them!... People approach any task with one of two types of goals: what I call be-good goals, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and already know what you're doing, and get-better goals, where the focus is on developing ability and learning to master a new skill.
The problem with be-good goals is that they tend to backfire when we are faced with something unfamiliar or difficult. We quickly start feeling that we don't actually know what we are doing, that we lack ability, and this creates a lot of anxiety. Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with performance quite like anxiety does â€" it is the productivity-killer.
Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.
If you're a manager who finds Halvorson's argument convincing, how do you actually go about convincing your team to think in terms of getting better rather than being good? It's simple, she says, and offers a three step process:
  • Acknowledge that the project is difficult and unfamiliar, and that you expect your employee will need some time to really get a handle on it. They may make some mistakes, and that's OK.
  • Remind your employee that you are there as a resource, to help them when they run into trouble.
  • Let them know that you are confident they have what it takes to eventually master this new responsibility.
Do you agree with the Halvorson's central premise? Does worrying less about mistakes and more about self-improvement really reduce mistakes?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user fireflythegreat, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.