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Not long ago, I made a painful mistake.  I was co-facilitating a workshop for a couple hundred corporate leaders on retreat at a beachside luxury hotel.  We were debriefing an exercise that invites participants to go deeper into their identities and relative power positions.  I asked a participant who raised her hand to elaborate on one of her responses, and in front of the entire room, she disclosed an identity (lack of a university degree) that made her vulnerable.  I’m clear on why I asked the question – I didn’t do so mindlessly.  I’m also clear on why I didn’t realize her answer made her vulnerable (lack of sufficient context provided during pre-event intake) — and why I was initially ignorant of my impact (no nonverbal cues from the participant).  In fact, I had no sense of my negative impact until my co-facilitator and I were leaving the engagement.  As we thanked and said goodbye to the enthusiastic participants as they departed for lunch, one of the event sponsors gave us her angry feedback in the doorway.

Regardless of my good intentions and good reasons, I had a negative impact.  I did damage that required some uncomfortable, frank conversations and relationship mending. While I recognized my mistake and owned my part of all the small errors that lead up to it, I also found gratitude in the midst of my guilt.  I’m proud of how I handled the angry feedback.  I’m proud of how I handled things after that (immediately getting on the phone with stakeholders).  I’m proud that I recognized the stressors and exhaustion that contributed to my mistake, and how growing lack of fit with that client was taking its toll.  I’m proud that I didn’t go into what Brené Brown calls a “shame spiral’.  I was resilient.

I’m also grateful for how this incident gave me an intimate reminder of how little room for error we leave in diversity and inclusion (D&I) work.  I think this is also a mistake.  While it IS critical that professionals like me who are paid well to speak or train leaders be impeccable in our content and delivery, I’ve noticed many organizations have too narrow a bandwidth for error in how they approach and implement D&I internally.  Too many value a mistake-free zone more than a mistake-resilient zone where people face their consequences, repair relationships, build their reslience and learn.

Not allowing room for error is way “old school.” “New School D&I” is not just about doing what actually works to create meaningful results that matter, but thinking and talking differently about D&I.  Zero tolerance for mistakes — in ourselves and others — stifles learning, increases anxiety, and fosters disconnect in relationships.  A mistake-intolerant culture is neither a learning culture, nor inclusive.  An inclusive culture places high priority not just on results, but relationships, because relationships lead to results.  Relationships need connection and authenticity to thrive, and safety is necessary for both.  Mistake-intolerance kills safety.

Clearly, not all mistakes are equal.  While dialogue, curiosity, and creative problem solving are appropriate for most workplace mistakes, a zero tolerance policy for others is not only appropriate, but necessary.  The power of #metoo and the tsunami of serious consequences for sexual misconduct in the workplace is a ripe opportunity for leaders to consider whether a scalpel, butcher knife, ax or guillotine are appropriate tools to excise whatever festers within their sphere of influence.

One of the many difficult tasks of effective leadership — whether of an organization, a team, or your own precious life — is this ability to discern.  Discernment requires building our resilience and capacity to pause and consider, make mindful decisions, and regulate our emotions and behaviors.  This includes acknowledging painful mistakes, making amends, learning from them, and moving on without wallowing in shame or blame.  It isn’t easy.  Being vulnerable in the interest of learning, connection and mutual growth — like me risking damaging my credibility with you by sharing one of my failures — isn’t easy.  But shifting paradigms from “old school” to “new school” always requires the courage to take calculated risks aligned with clear values, inside a vision of what’s possible.  And that requires a greater tolerance for error.


  • Pam Mix says:

    Thanks, Susana. I think this is really important in D&I work and all kinds of learning environments. I wonder, do you ever use “ouch” and “oops” in your work? It seems to be used (somewhat controversially) in more academic settings, and I’m wondering if it’s effective with a business or other professional group.

    • Susana Rinderle says:

      Hi Pam! Thanks for reading, and I’m glad the ideas in this piece resonated with you. I’m aware of the “ouch and educate” and also “oops” as tools. I don’t necessarily teach them per se, because I find my clients (even in academia) need more specific, flexible skills. I very much like the intent behind the two, but unless they’re used with effective nonverbals, and as conversation starters when the context and situation are right, they can produce a classic “good intent, negative impact” scenario (especially with ouch). Also, New School Diversity isn’t about creating a pain-free environment, but a more resilient environment where leaders can make more intelligent decisions, especially involving and impacting people. This goes beyond equipping people with ways to let each other know when they’ve “offended” each other — indeed, organizational cultures that are hyperfocused on building awareness of, and constantly addressing, what is “offensive” (read: hurt feelings) find themselves on a tense, unproductive path. So in short, those are decent tools, and sometimes helpful within trusting interpersonal relationships, but limited in their workplace effectiveness.

      • Calvin says:

        Hi Susana,

        I’ve recently come across many coworkers in the food service industry unable to speak up against coworker harassment/frustrations (or mistakes like you write about in this article (to clarify, non-serious matters like misguided jokes or comments) due to of course not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, but also not knowing *how* to respond. Do you think equipping folks with “buzz words” or “buzz phrases” can help, at the very least, break the ice and hopefully encite further conversation between coworkers before things are taken more seriously?


        • Susana Rinderle says:

          Hi Calvin! Thank you for reading, and for your thoughtful question. You point to a common problem — people not knowing what to say, or how. Because how often do we see this modeled effectively, right? There are various trainings and communication models that provide generic templates for such statements (I-statement formula, Straight Talk, Crucial Conversations). So the answer to your questions is “yes” and I recommend working out the scripting with your HR business partner. If you’d like to email me, I’m also happy to help problem solve offline.

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