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.