Mistakes are important

Morley Lymburner
October 01, 2012
By Morley Lymburner
Good supervisors permit their people to grow from mistakes and provide an environment where they can be taken in stride. Mistakes are handled, managed and learned from. The very best supervisors actually look forward to them. I’m not talking about conspiratorial or abusive mistakes but rather honest mistakes and miscues that are part of learning the job. Less knowledgeable supervisors hesitate to think this way because it means taking a risk. Their people might make mistakes and this could reflect badly on themselves or their organization.

Good supervisors permit their people to grow from mistakes and provide an environment where they can be taken in stride.

Mistakes are handled, managed and learned from. The very best supervisors actually look forward to them. I’m not talking about conspiratorial or abusive mistakes but rather honest mistakes and miscues that are part of learning the job.

Less knowledgeable supervisors hesitate to think this way because it means taking a risk. Their people might make mistakes and this could reflect badly on themselves or their organization.

I was immediately warned when I began my policing career to stay clear of probationary sergeants. These were the newbie supervisors who worked hard to remove the word “probationary” from their rank. To most it was a year of showing the boss they could catch their underlings doing anything wrong. The arcane rules and regs of the time certainly made that aspect of their job relatively easy.

Back in the day being a beat officer made you the easy target on cold wintry days. Pulling your collar up around your neck, wearing a sweater under your jacket (we were not issued sweaters), putting on non-issue winter boots (we were not issued winter boots), wearing non-issued gloves (we were not issued gloves) or malingering in a warm barber shop at the corner were all met with documentations and penalties amounting to a days pay.

When I became a training officer my standing joke to my trainees was that I had lost more time in unit commander assessed penalties than they had on the job. Today I recognize that I was a victim of systemic bad rules made up around bad concepts of process and equipment.

The old theory goes that if everyone follows a predictable recipe then mistakes are not made. The problem with this theory is that when mistakes eventually do happen supervisors and organizations are often ill prepared to handle them appropriately. This situation denies the inevitability of mistakes. It also encourages an intolerability that can compound these inevitable problems.

Put this idea in the realm of a sky diver. In my estimation, if I were to be thrown out of an airplane at 3,000 metres this would be a big mistake (no kidding, huh?); now I am going down and there is no getting back to that warm and stable airplane. However the people who planned this adventure know the goal is to get me down on the ground safely.

The decisions I make after they throw me out the door are suddenly and unalterably my own. I can go into an uncontrolled descent screaming in shear terror. I can get angry at them for throwing me out. I can get pouty and petulant. None of these reactions will solve the immediate problem. Fortunately minimal training – knowing where to find and when to pull the rip cord – will get me on the ground alive. Everything I learn after that lesson only reduces the terror and (so I have heard) can actually replace it with pleasure.

I do not encourage my people to make mistakes but I recognize the value of learning through them. One of my jobs as a supervisor is to create an environment where mistakes can be made from which we can all survive. In other words, I show them the rip cord and they jump with the intent to fly.

My job is to ensure that when mistakes are made there is an appropriate safety net in place so the individual and organization can survive the error. I do not necessarily explain in detail or give courses on all the rules and safety nets. Doing this would only encourage them to forever check, maintain, build, restructure and test the safety nets. This would be fine for Acme Safety Net Ltd. but I want my people to venture forth and spread their wings. Let them dream and experiment; hopefully I can give them the tools and environment to do so.

It is clear that supervisors have to monitor their people and sometimes adjust directions. Their job is to make reasonable exceptions to established procedures because no one has ever created the ultimate and fail-safe procedure manual.

I know it is difficult but sometimes supervisors should just let mistakes happen. It gives their people the opportunity to think and talk about the mistake and, with supervisory help if necessary, guide themselves through a solution process. Most times those who make the mistake are the best people to correct it.

If your agency is fortunate enough to have members with vision who are ready to spread their wings, then you should provide a smooth runway... and an unseen cushion at the end of it.

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