I’m a founder, CEO, and investor in a growing technology startup. Yes, I experience stress that accompanies my love and passion for what I do.
More to the point, my stress is frequently misunderstood. Unexpected things happen; many of them are due to mistakes made and associated human error, miscommunication, or missteps. It’s frequently assumed that it’s these mistakes that drive my stress. They aren’t. In this article, I explain why mistakes aren’t what worry or stress me and, instead, it’s our reaction to mistakes that does.
Mistakes are unintended tests of individuals and teams; how mistakes are handled reflects a Mistake Maturity measuring an individual’s and an organization’s ability to overcome and thrive. Below are the five levels of Mistake Maturity (MM): levels MM 0 through MM 4. Team Mistake Maturity is simply the aggregate Mistake Maturity of the individuals within that team.
MM 0: Oblivion
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset; it’s not a big deal.”
“Look at the positive and how this is great for us.”
At MM 0, there’s a general lack of appreciation for the mistake let alone and understanding of why it happened; colleagues at MM 0 are oblivious to the mistake, its severity, and its impact. They frequently feel like there’s an overreaction to the situation, and may try to focus on positive side effects or outcomes instead of understanding the mistake itself.
MM 0 is not as rare as you might think; a colleague who is somewhat junior relative to their responsibility or who is otherwise “in over their head” may not even recognize that a mistake occurred due to the nuance of the situation.
MM 1: Recognition
“This shouldn’t happen; I don’t understand!”
“I’m so upset this happened.”
MM 1 reflects sufficient awareness and sophistication to recognize that a situation is problematic and has impact. It’s an important leap forward from MM 0 where the colleague doesn’t need to be helped to realize the significant of the situation. However, at MM 1, the colleague may not yet realize the root cause of the situation and thus not yet ready to realize it was due to a mistake.
MM 2: Realization
“If there’s someone to blame, it’s probably me…”
“I am upset and disappointed this happened…”
MM 2 is by far the most common maturity level for individual colleagues: they recognize a situation as problematic and, moreover, the realize their role in it…they realize it was their mistake, in part or in totality. They may be able to drop hints that they recognize their mistake, but do not have the humility or maturity (Mistake Maturity, that is) to take responsibility outwardly. In many cases, in their minds, they believe they’ve taken responsibility with loosely-worded acknowledgements such as “I guess it could be my fault” or “I suppose I’m at fault.”
Not only is this Mistake Maturity level the most common I’ve experienced professionally, there’s such a large gap between it and the next level, that I’ve labeled it “the Realization-Responsibility Chasm.” Not many people ever cross that chasm. Many managers simply aren’t able to recognize their responsibility for mistakes within their organization, so MM 2 is where they peak.
MM 3: Responsibility
“I am very sorry; This was entirely my responsibility.”
“I could have and should have avoided this; I’m so sorry and will not do this again.”
Very few people make it to MM 3; it’s a rare breed. It takes a great deal of humility to acknowledge and recognize a mistake, realize one’s role in it, and externally take responsibility for it.
I can’t tell you how few people say “I’m sorry” in a sincere way; more importantly, there are few phrases that disarm me more than “I’m sincerely sorry.” I admire these people. I don’t worry much about them once they’ve demonstrated a consistent ability to be at MM 3.
MM 4: Remediation
“I genuinely apologize; this will not happen again; you can count on me to ensure that.”
“Please forgive me; I will do what’s necessary to ensure this is no longer an issue.”
If MM 3 colleagues are rare breeds, MM 4 colleagues are unicorns: they’re not only able to take unambiguous responsibility for their mistakes, they have the aptitude and capacity to remediate them independently.
A mistake made by an MM 4 colleague does not keep me up at all; we all make mistakes from time to time. An MM 4 will not only recognize it and take full responsibility, they’ll also effectively remediate the mistake, and systematically put measures in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The more MM 4 colleagues I have on my team, the more soundly I’m able to sleep with no worries at all.