This past Saturday, someone at Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency pressed the wrong button. As you’ve undoubtedly heard, this sent a message via cell phones, radio, and even the highway warning system that a ballistic missile strike had been launched against the state.
Given our nation’s icy tension with North Korea, residents and tourists were understandably scared and panicked.
What’s more, many people didn’t know the location of their local bomb shelters (and people under 35 probably don’t even remember evacuation drills that included bomb shelters). In fact, individuals were so unprepared for a possible missile strike that PBS reported the Google search phrase “survive nuclear” spiked during the false alarm.
While this isn’t how anyone wants to learn about surviving a potential attack, the false alarm probably prepared the Hawaiian Islands for a potential attack better than any routine drill. In the days following the false alarm, residents undoubtedly researched the location of their local bomb shelter; discussed plans for communicating with and protecting family members during an emergency; and identified other precautions they can take in the event of an attack.
I don’t want to minimize the very real sense of fear and panic that Hawaiians and tourists felt that day, but how do we respond when someone in our organization makes a mistake? Do we immediately seek to identify and punish the person who made a mistake or do we want to make this a teachable moment? Do we want to use the mistake as an opportunity to build a stronger organization and a healthier team?
In the spirit of recognizing that we all make mistakes, it might be helpful to acknowledge some of my bigger blunders and how my employer responded:
Of the many mistakes I made in my first job, the two most significant involved the submission of grant proposals. In that very first year after graduating from college, I drafted a proposal to a local women’s foundation that included an anticipated outcome of a certain number of women leaving abusive partners. When conducting the pre-award site visit, the foundation’s volunteers expressed genuine disbelief that we would make such an unrealistic commitment, and they noted that such a naiveté did not reflect well on the organization’s expertise. Looking back almost 25 years later, I share and understand their concerns.
The organization could have fired or demoted me but instead implemented a better system for program supervisors to review grant proposals as part of the drafting process. Consequently, I learned about programming from more experienced professionals and the organization submitted stronger grant proposals.
A few years later when the grant department grew, this system for internally reviewing grant proposals served our agency well.
The second big mistake occurred after the grant department started to grow. My responsibilities increased to include supervising a grant writer and managing accreditation for the organization. During this transition, I missed the deadline to request the renewal of a $10,000 grant.
The day after the proposal would have been due, I realized my mistake. If this was a punitive environment, many people would have quietly removed the proposal from the shared spreadsheet and hoped no one asked about it. But in this amazing environment that accepted mistakes as part of a larger learning process, I openly shared my failure. I spoke with both the Development Director and the Executive Director, explained that I missed an important deadline, and noted the steps I would take to ensure that this never happened again.
Once again, the organization didn’t even write me up. They thanked me for my candor and clearly communicated that meeting deadlines was a critical part of my job.
And I was true to my word – never missing another grant deadline. After all, it’s okay to make a mistake, but it’s not okay to make the same mistake repeatedly.
How does your organization respond to mistakes?