Through the Provost’s Window: The Value of Mistake-Making

By Dr. Kristine Barnett

I remember my first big workplace doozie, when I was a young pup of 25 working in corporate communications for a major health insurer. To my horror, I realized I had approved printing more than 250,000 copies of a postcard that listed a customer service number of 1-800-XXX-XXXX. The 7 x’s had been included as dummy text place holders. I meant to go back and insert the real digits but failed to do that. Ashen-faced, I ran to my boss in the hopes the print order hadn’t been sent to the on-site print shop, but the universe had something to teach me. The print order had gone over that very morning. My boss, red faced to my ashen face, gave me a stern lecture about attending to details. I looked at him expectantly, assuming he would bail me out. But he told me to put on my sneakers and walk over to the print shop myself. I was to ask the print crew directly to literally stop the presses. That was a humbling experience. I found the print shop manager, explained my typo, and expressed my regret. In the end, I cost the company some money and also gained a valuable lesson in making mistakes, owning them, and trying to fix them.

According to Frank Wilczek, “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems.” While Wilczek’s problems may be in his field of theoretical physics, the sentiment applies widely. As higher ed leaders, we are going to make some mistakes. And they can be ugly. And embarrassing. And visible. Those visible mistakes can surely be hard for those of us who are attracted to higher ed because the field attracts people who like to be experts. Experts don’t like to be wrong. People who don’t like to wrong often don’t take risks. And avoid risk can mean avoiding reward.

So what’s the right way to be wrong?

We can try to avoid mistakes, or at least minimize the number or errors made in a day or week. Staying organized is a good way to stay ahead of deadlines. Mistakes often happen when we are crunched for time or under pressure. Build time into your schedule for big projects. Read, re-read, revise your math, and review your data. Then do it again. Collaborate with others who can help you with whatever the project is, whether it is writing a report, hiring the right teammates, or developing a strategy. If you keep your eyes on the details, you might catch the mistakes before they are out the door.  

If you can’t avoid mistakes, you should at least own them. No matter what you do, you will discover your own mistakes – as I did with my printing error – or your mistakes will find you. In my new role, within the first month I made a substantial mis-step that I did not know about until a faculty member pointed it out publicly. That was uncomfortable, and not what I wanted for myself in the first semester in my new role. I listened to the information about my gaffe, checked my facts, and confirmed that I had worded an email so unclearly that I conveyed exactly the opposite of what I should have said. In hindsight, I should have done a bit more homework on the issue before sending the email. I had to own the mistake and rectify the ramifications. I apologized to those affected, and leaned on the good graces of a couple of faculty members who helped remedy the situation. I was sure to thank them directly for their help and support.

Some folks believe that on the job, you should never apologize or admit mistakes. Admitting to mistakes makes you vulnerable. Vulnerability is not comfortable. But often, an acknowledgement of regret goes a long way. Admitting mistakes reminds others that you are human. Sometimes, a tense situation is diffused by an apology. I have found this especially helpful with irate students and parents when I have had to be the institution’s Apologizer in Chief. Sometimes, affirming that a person’s experience hasn’t been the best and working to make it right is all they need.

We need to remember to extend grace when others make mistakes in the workplace. Our colleagues are fallible too. Others will look to leaders to see their reactions when someone has stepped in it. Keep your poker face, attend to the issue in private rather than in public whenever possible, and ensure that the mistake will not be repeated. A good leader often has to help clean up other people’s mistakes. To this day, I will quadruple check phone numbers on any document I issue. Lesson learned.

Action Step:

Take a few moments to reflect on the most significant mistakes you made at work. How was it handled? What did you learn? What did you do as a result? What would you have done differently?

Sometimes, the very best lessons come from our mistakes.

Kristine Barnett, Ed.D is a career-long educator and academic administrator who often has a unique perspective on all aspects of academic leadership. Dr. Barnett has cobbled together a career at a variety of institutions that have afforded her several different scenic vistas. For the most part, her leadership has been focused on small, private, liberal arts women’s (or former women’s) colleges. Barnett is new to her position as a Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at an independent liberal arts college in the southeast, affording her a new window and a new view. In her spare time, Barnett works with doctoral students in the Bay Path University EdD in Educational Leadership program.

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