Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts recently gave the graduation address for his son’s middle school class at the Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, New Hampshire. In the address, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized the importance of experiencing failure:
"From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.... I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion."
(The entire twelve-minute address is heartfelt and very much worth watching. See it here http://www.scotusblog.com/media/commencement-address-chief-justice-john-roberts/ starting at 5:45.)
These words beautifully express the tension a parent or educator feels between nurturing a young person and “letting go.” The simple yet profound wisdom here is, a young person cannot grow unless he or she is allowed to venture into the not-always-benign world and experience some hard knocks. I’m sure many parents would agree, knowing how and when to let go is the hardest and often the most heartbreaking part of parenting.
A similar dynamic exists for performance managers and the teams that report to them. The fact is, too often we performance managers do not allow our team members to learn through their own mistakes as well as successes.
Instead, we intervene.
We have various motives for intervening. In some cases, just like parents we have compassion for our team and want to shelter them from the consequences of falling short. In other cases, we enjoy the ego boost we get from riding to the rescue. In yet other cases, we cannot tolerate any level of imperfection and so we become micromanagers.
Whatever our motive, we will pay a price for these interventions in the long run. Our sheltering instincts reinforce poor performance and form barriers to our teams’ personal and professional growth. Our rescuing instincts disinhibit our teams from relying on their own wits. And our perfectionism stifles initiative and lowers morale. These are not the ingredients of a high-performance culture, and they will not lead to the business results your stakeholders require.
What is the alternative? By allowing our team to make some mistakes and even to fail at times, we free them to experience the consequences of their performance. They will learn self-accountability – yes, sometimes the hard way. Any persistent performance issues will emerge more clearly and sooner, positioning us to respond more effectively by holding people accountable rather than intervening. All in all, our teams will feel much more empowered despite the increase in "hard knocks," and they will become more resourceful, motivated and engaged. Our business results will show it.
Of course, there are limits to what mistakes any manager should tolerate. Even temporary compromises to product or client safety can never be permitted. And some set backs are simply too material to the organization to serve as a learning experience for the team.
The good news is, so long as our normal mode is to give our team the freedom to do their jobs, they will appreciate that we have the good judgment to roll up our sleeves and get more involved when our direct contribution is essential.
The price of allowing mistakes always seems high in the moment, but the price of not allowing them is higher in the long run.
An experienced CEO and senior executive, Jim Keane is a consultant for mission-driven organizations and a practicing attorney. Learn more at www.KeaneAndCompany.com.