When Deb Dagit walked in to make her first presentation to the Merck Board of Directors, she knew what she was going to say. She was speaking to the Board about the importance of making a commitment to having a diverse workforce and to creating a workplace culture where differences among people are seen as a business advantage. One look at the serious faces of the members of the Board, though, began to erode her confidence. It wasn’t until Dr. Johnnetta Cole, then President of Spelman College and a member of Merck’s board, approached her that her confidence returned. Dagit says:
I had never met her before but she came over to me, gave me a hug, and said, “We are going to have a wonderful conversation.” All the time, I was talking to the Board, I just kept looking at her and I got through it.
Dagit, now the Chief Diversity Officer at Merck, told this story in the context of a business seminar I was conducting on how the skills that help children thrive (skills I identified in a review of the research for my book Mind in the Making) are the very same skills that help adults become more effective at work. The skill we were talking about was taking on challenges.
Adults, like children, look to the faces of others in uncertain or new situations to assess the situation and to figure out how to proceed. This tendency has a name in the research literature–it’s called “social referencing,”
Anne Weisberg, Director in Talent at Deloitte and a speaker at the business seminar, makes the point we are increasingly faced with uncertain paths to navigate in our everyday jobs as our world changes at breakneck speed and as knowledge multiplies exponentially. She says that we are going to have to try new things if we are going to adapt and thrive. Here are some suggestions from the speakers at this business seminar on how they have learned to see making mistakes as a part of taking on challenges.
Each of us can seek mentors and role models. We can intentionally connect with people who provide support for navigating new experiences. And it is not just emotional support (“you can do it”) that’s necessary — that would be like taking a trip without a compass. Seeking out people who have had similar experiences and who can share lessons learned, mistakes made, and lessons learned as well as provide feedback on potential strategies provide practical support — if someone else can survive a setback and get back up on his or her feet, so can I!
Employers can provide employer training on micro-behaviors. Even if one is well-prepared (as Dagit was in speaking to the Board of Directors), if others aren’t supportive, our confidence is affected. For that reason, a number of employers are providing training on “micro-behaviors,” especially in the context of women’s advancement. Women have told the story for years of suggesting a new idea at a meeting, only to find that others at the meeting sigh or look at their watches. However, if a similar or identical idea is suggested by a man, it may be greeted with enthusiasm. These subtle put downs have been called micro-behaviors. Jim Rottman, Vice President of American Express and a speaker at the business seminar, notes that employee training can help employees recognize and curb these behaviors in themselves. Some new ideas may sound crazy at first or we may be more willing to listen to them from some members of a team than others. If we are going to innovate, we have to be willing to listen, to make mistakes, and try new things.
Employers can create initiatives to change the norms around making mistakes. Weisberg believes that companies are going to have to create an environment where making mistakes are seen as an inevitable part of learning and thus succeeding. Weisberg suggests that companies heed the story of Daniel Nava of the Red Sox, the second person in history to hit a grand slam in the major leagues on the first pitch at bat, even though his career was filled with potholes, such as repeatedly being cut from teams. But his father encouraged him to write down his goals and approach challenges in a positive way. And he obviously does, believing that if there are mistakes today, “there’s still tomorrow.”
My grown daughter is the Senior Vice President of Echoing Green, which invests seed funding to 500 social entrepreneurs and their innovative organizations to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. She has seen failure and success and had learned that if you aren’t trying something a little scary, then you probably aren’t doing something important. Her mantra has become: “fear means go!”
Ellen Galinsky is President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute and author of Mind in the Making.