This week I’m addressing our third topic in the four-part summer series I’m calling “Favorite Fails.” Although Humans at Work™ can and should learn from their mistakes, many leaders, including the executive below, have difficulty knowing how to provide such latitude.

Dear Dr. Graham:

I run a department known for its excellence. I get a lot of positive feedback on the accuracy of everything that comes out of our office. Other executives often comment on the dependability of the people who work for me. However, last week some of my most talented managers told me I am “making them crazy.” One actually said she has decided there’s no point in spending time on a first draft because, “I know you’re going to tear it up anyway.”

I don’t want to send anything out that’s not perfect because I don’t want to see my people fail. But I also don’t want anyone working for me to be miserable. How do I instill a culture of excellence while letting others learn from their mistakes?

Diligent Director


Dear Diligent,

As you know, leaders at your level are often in more difficult positions than their employees might imagine. In some situations, wise leaders let their people fail, so they can learn from their mistakes. At other times there is no latitude for missteps, and leaders must intervene to prevent disaster.

Although I have many clients who ask how to differentiate between those situations, I can’t tell anyone what their guidelines should be. Each company/department has its own criteria. What I can do is suggest some questions that have helped my senior-level clients anticipate possible outcomes. The following questions can help you determine when to intervene and when to allow others to risk failure:

  • If I let this happen, will it have significant negative consequences for the company?
  • If I let this happen, will it ruin someone’s career? Will it have significant negative consequences for my career?
  • Do the changes I want to make in my employees’ presentations/reports address something substantial — such as correcting inaccuracies — or do they merely reflect my style/method preferences?
  • Is my concern about an anticipated fail based on what’s best for my employees and my firm, or am I most concerned about how this might make me look less than perfect?

Since your objectives are to instill a culture of excellence while also letting others learn from their mistakes, I suggest you use these questions to differentiate between the things that will have a small impact versus the big stuff that could have dire consequences. It is evident to me that you already know how to provide excellent work for your firm. It is also evident to me that you want to develop strong leaders for your firm, including people prepared to maximize all lessons they’ve learned from their “favorite fails.” By diligently asking yourself these questions, I believe you’ll be better able to meet both of your objectives.

I invite you to join my Facebook Group: Lead at a Higher Level to interact with me directly. I launched the group as a space for having broader conversations around leadership. Joining the group gives you access to me and to a cohort of fellow leaders who are passionate, innovative, and focused on sharpening their leadership skills and furthering their careers.  I’d love for you to join us!

Have a question you’d like answered? You may submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here.

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