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This post originally appeared as part of the #SAFailsForward series on the Student Affairs Collective Blog on June 6, 2014 at http://studentaffairscollective.org/safailsforward-chris-talks-perfectly-imperfect-learning-to-embrace-the-errors/

Many of us have been in this situation before: you unveil a new program or initiative. It goes off pretty well and you’re feeling pretty good about introducing something fresh or different. Most people are complimentary and give you a pat on the back…but there’s that one person who just can’t wait to tell you what you did wrong. From the moment your idea started, that person was already staring with a magnifying glass ready to catch the minor snag or malfunction, and they are sure to let you know about it.

When this happens to me, I generally go through the Idina Menzel stages of emotion – there’s the anger (No good deed goes unpunished) the defiance (Take me or leave me) the acceptance (Let it go) and then the recommitment (I’m flying high, defying gravity). If imperfection is a gift, as our Student Affairs sage, Brene Brown, tells us, then I’m like Richie Rich on Christmas morning. I’m quite comfortable with failing, in part because I practice reflection. I know my mistakes almost as soon as they have happened, and I’m ready and willing to not just admit them, but to learn from them as well. While at times I might be a tad overly self-critical, I have come to a point of being able to not allow my failures to outweigh my successes in my own mind – and to recognize those times when the failures actually do.

But my message is not to my brothers and sisters in flawsomeness. I’m directing this to those who feel the need to keep what I like to call the failure scorecards. These are the individuals who keep meticulous notes on where others go wrong; the folks who are, in fact, more comfortable noticing the speck of dust in the eye of another while ignoring the plank in their own.

Some of you might have rationalized this behavior into a form of motivation. By pushing others to always do “better”, you convince yourself, you’re pushing them to be the best versions of themselves. And this strategy might work on occasion. But, the danger of this behavior is that it can breed mistrust and resentment and actually stifle growth. Innovation requires risk. Attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before means it hasn’t been tested. There will inevitably be bugs to work out and adjustments to be made. But if those who work with or for you are convinced that your feedback will always be critical, at some point the intrinsic motivation may no longer be enough. Instead, they will be more inclined to mimic practices they know are likely to receive the least negative feedback. People will no longer grow, but rather, maintain. People will tell you and give you what you want to hear instead of what you should hear. In the end, you have strengthened others, but actually weakened yourself.

So you’re mistake scorecard keeper? Congratulations, acceptance is the first step! So what you can do to try to change this behavior?

  1. Don’t burst the bubble: It’s not likely that you will forget what didn’t go right with a program, initiative, or idea, but is it really necessary to share that information immediately? If the initiative was generally a success, allow the individual to bask in that for a moment before deflating the elation.
  2. Process instead of Prescribe: When you finally do take the opportunity to offer feedback, process with the individual instead of for them. Ask them “so how did you think it went overall” “What do you think went well?” “Is there anything you might do differently or adjust for next time?’ If the individual feels supported by you overall, then he or she is more likely to give an honest assessment, and they just might identify what needs improvement on their own.
  3. Reframe: Instead of telling a person what they did wrong, try, instead, to teach them how they might improve. Your critical feedback might very well be based on your own rich knowledge and could be quite beneficial. Someone else is more likely to hear and absorb it if its perceived to come from a place of caring about helping the individual do better rather than making it seem that you want to prove that you ARE better.
  4. Don’t cross the praise and criticism streams: Sometimes we think if we lead into critical feedback by cushioning it with praise, it will be taken less harshly. But what ends up happening is that the other individual doesn’t even hear the praise because its immediately washed out by the criticism. Critical feedback IS important to give, but if praise is deserved and warranted, then make sure it is allowed to stand on its own.

We can talk about “failing forward” all we want, but the reality of failure is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People can fail forward onto the next step or into a pit. To create a system that allows failing forward to actually be a progression requires the rest of us imperfect souls to serve as spotters to either nudge back up or, when necessary, catch before they crash. If we truly value authenticity, then we need to accept that with authenticity comes imperfection. Persian rugs are said to be created with an intentional imperfection – they are “perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise”- and that is how you can determine an authentic Persian rug from an imposter. When we are able to embrace and appreciate those perfect imperfections in those who work with and for us, we then gain the benefit of their authenticity and all the beauty they have to offer.