Go Ahead and Make Mistakes – But Not Really

Decision Making SignAs leaders, we say we want our people to be empowered and to go out and make decisions.  We say we’re okay with them making mistakes and we’ll still support them making decisions on their own.

But not really.

I’m lucky to have a huge leadership lab in the form of the SmartBrief on Leadership weekly pulse poll.  Every week I ask a leadership-related question and thousands of people respond to those polls.  Sometimes I get a little sneaky and conduct my own experiments over the period of a few weeks.  I conducted one of these experiments recently.

First I asked “Would you rather have a team member make decisions and make mistakes or make no decisions and leave that up to you?”

Unsurprisingly, all us empowering leaders were eager to give our team members the latitude to make decisions and make mistakes.  96% of respondents said they’d rather have a team member make a decision even if they make mistakes.  A measly 4% of respondents wanted the team to leave all decisions up to them.

I observed we want our team members to take the initiative, take action and move things forward, even if they make mistakes. It is incumbent upon us as leaders to ensure that, when they do make mistakes, we realize we gave them the latitude to take action — handling the mistakes in that context accordingly. While we need to hold them accountable for the mistake, we also need to ensure they learn from it and do so in a way that we don’t make them afraid to make more mistakes in the future.  Heck, I believe so strongly in this notion of decision making and empowerment that I dedicated a whole chapter of One Piece of Paper to the topic (grab a copy here and check out Chapter 13).

The following week I conducted the second part of my experiment.

I then asked “When I make a decision that results in a mistake, my leaders either:

– Accept the mistake, coach me and encourage me to make future decisions or
– Punish me for the mistake and discourage me from making future decisions

It’s not shocking that 72% said their leaders accept the mistake while 28% get punished for making the decision and making the mistake.  Yes, there’s the normal “I think I’m better at this than I really am” bias at play here but the difference is pretty significant.

Clearly the majority of folks work in a supportive environment where they’re given latitude and authority to make decisions even if they result in mistakes.  The worrisome part is the almost 30% don’t work in such an environment.

So how do we get past this dynamic of wanting to make decisions and have room to make mistakes without getting pounded by the boss?  How do we keep ourselves from saying we want our folks making decisions but not turning into Mr. Hyde on them on the back end and punishing them?

In the first case, I’d suggest providing the feedback to your boss that you feel stifled in your ability to make decisions.  Explain how that environment results in less initiative and agree upon levels of decision making authority in which you’re free to operate.  Perhaps that will reduce the “punishment zone.”

As far as creating the right environment for your team to make decisions, put the right boundaries in place and ensure YOU adhere to them.  For example, tell your team members they can make any decision up to $25,000 in spending.  Sure they’ll make some bad choices but it’s incumbent on you to let them make those decisions then provide coaching (not punishment) on the back end.  An approach like this will balance the amount of risk you take while still creating an environment where people feel empowered to make the call.

Decision making is inherently a tradeoff of time and risk as well as a balance of who is or isn’t involved in the decision making process (and yes, shameless plug – we teach a course on Deliberate Decision Making that provides the tools required to be a better decision maker – drop me a line if you’re interested in learning more about the program).  As a leader, your job is to manage all these tradeoffs and ensure your people understand decision making criteria, rights, and risks.

The more time you invest in thinking through the decision making process and the corresponding authority/responsibility, the faster your team will make decisions and the better those decisions will be.  Additionally, your team members will be much happier and feel more valued because you actually let them make the call.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

– If you want to learn how to make and drive better decisions as a leader, grab a copy of my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership or download the audiobook version at  There’s an entire chapter dedicated to decision making.

4 Responses to “Go Ahead and Make Mistakes – But Not Really”

  1. Mike, this was a very important post. So many leaders send mixed-messages on this topic, as you said in the title, “…but not really.” Using a dollar amount as the risk threshold, however, doesn’t work in many situations. It’s incumbent upon managers to create levels of delegation that manage risk, and then do what they promised: allow the individual to carry out the responsibility.

  2. John Fisher says:

    Very interesting post Mike. There was a study a few years ago among CIO’s and their direct reports that showed a similar discrepancy in terms of direction. A high percentage of the CIO’s thought they provided clear direction to their direct reports, but only about 70% of the direct reports thought they received clear direction. Communications is a difficult thing to master, as you have said many times, and perhaps some of the 30% felt they were punished for the decision, and it is possible that the punishment is simply a consequence of the bad decision. Leaders take responsibility for their actions, and sometimes living with the consequences can be viewed as “punishment” when in fact it is part of the learning experience. If the leader doesn’t explain what is happening, (or maybe cannot explain because of other factors) the emerging decision maker can misinterpret the result, and we all know that people don’t communicate as well as they might. I’m not discounting the discrepancy between survey 1 and survey 2, but just saying that some of the discrepancy may be due to communication issues.

    I’m not a big fan of using a dollar amount as the determining factor as that sometimes can result in “you make the small decisions and I make the big ones.” It can be a good training tool, but you should also train your leaders on significant decisions as well. This can be higher risk, but it is also a much better learning environment. My leadership style was to have discussions about the significant decisions and ask each member what their decision would be. This allowed my senior staff to participate in the decision process. This also allowed them all to buy into whatever decision was made. Often I would say “it’s your call” to the person most responsible, and then not only myself, but my entire staff would support them in their decision.

    Good food for thought, and I hope to see a lively discussion.

  3. Chris Kobbs says:

    I’ve served under quite a few leaders in my career. From my perspective under these leaders I’ve noticed behaviors that made the great ones great and all the others closer to intolerable.

    – Allow us to make decisions that MAY be a mistake. Then back us up. If you agree with the decision to purchase a new machine (for example), then you need to support it entirely. From purchase approval, delivery, installation, training and reinforcement of its use. I’ve experienced too many times bringing in a new tool, process, etc. and without follow through support it sits in a corner and gathers dust, or wastes valuable server space not being used.

    – I agree with John Fisher, encourage anyone to make a decision – but the staff and/or management team NEEDS to respect and support it. Even through failure. It shows us that a mistake will not condemn you to a corn field. And it tells us that mistakes truely are learning opportunities instead of job idle death sentences. Support can also show that ideas and decisions are respected from anyone, not just managers and higher.

    – Dollar value is a distraction. Communicating why use a dollar value will curb “feelings” of distrust. I agree with John, use it as a training tool to gain experience towards bigger decisions. the goal is to guide, lead, gain experience and confidence. We don’t let our kids ride motorcycles until they master the big wheel, scooter, two-wheel bike, etc. same concept.

    – Clear the road. when i run into a road block. I need a leader to back me up. Especially when that leader instructs me to implement a new process they support. Without backup, its like bringing a spoon to the OK corral gunfight.

    My two cents.

  4. Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!
    Thanks for The Straight Truth on this topic.
    This will be a fantastic reinforcement to several clients I will send to right now!

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