Learning from your mistakes as a manager

“Managers learn from the meaning they give to experience, not from the experience itself, and they give meaning to experience by reflecting”
Sievert & Daudelin 1999

This is a pretty powerful idea – you don’t just learn from your experiences but you learn from reflecting on those experiences. During my career I have seen some leaders make huge mistakes, reflect on them honestly with themselves, learn and grow in to even better leaders because of them.
Likewise, I’ve seen other leaders make similar mistakes, have similar outcomes but due to a lack of real reflection never learn from the experience and thus repeating it many times over.

Alan was a great up and coming manager, he was learning from an excellent people manager who was well respected in the business and eager to take on advice and apply it to his own journey as a leader. A tricky employee issue came up – Steve was a handful in the workplace and with a couple of (minor issues) some mental health issues began to surface.
Alan was eager to do the text book right thing (although maybe was a little overzealous in some discussions) – Steve didn’t take it well and it a long process was entered in to that took a lot of time and effort on the part of Alan’s manager, the business and the HR team.
Heaps of people have been in Alan’s position. Your first few years of management aren’t easy and you will always make mistakes.
Alan’s manager, being a great people manager coached Alan through the process and the aftermath – in a way that set could Alan up for real success with learning opportunities from this difficult situation.

The next point is where the great people leaders and the perpetual managers differ (and I’m sure you’ll be able to recognise people from both camps). What does Alan do next?

A.        Does he think about his role in the outcome, sort through decisions he made and see how they inter played with a mental health and performance issue in the workplace learning how he might deal with a similar issue differently in the future?

B.        Or, does he reflect and critically evaluate, no matter the mitigating factors (the performance issues and mental health concerns) that he had preferences, biases and a limited frame of reference. Does he then take time to reflect on how his responses could have differed at different stages of the process? How may these tendencies play out in other, less similar circumstances? May he learn something from his process, his behaviour that might make a difference with an entirely different situation in the future?

Alan A think’s he’s being reflective and learning from the situation – but his focus is external. What would he change being given a very similar issue in the future?

Alan B is being reflective and will really learn from the situation. His learning and subsequent behaviour change will transcend a very similar issue and will be able to be applied in many future situations.

When you learn a lesson, face a challenge or hit a wall, do you critically reflect? Or do you pay lip service to the process but never really change your behaviour?

Alan A can be called a ‘single loop learner’ – he’s looking at feedback (did something succeed or fail) to help establish what he could try next.

Alan B can be called a ‘double loop learner’ – he’s looking at feedback but he’s asking additional questions which help him get to the root cause, underlying beliefs, values  and assumptions.

If you want to encourage double loop learning in your practise try asking yourself:
Why did I try that in the first place?
What made me think that would work?
When have I experienced similar results?
What has this shown me about myself?

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