Learning from Our Own Mistakes

By Lance Woodbury on April 18, 2019

In a recent meeting, we were discussing the times in our lives that define us in some significant way.  Those "crucible moments" often come through being placed in difficult situations, and we either successfully or unsuccessfully face these circomstances.

But a surprising number of lessons emerge from mistakes of our own making.  We often create the difficult situation in which we find ourselves.  In a phrase, we had "made our own bed."  When I think about the self-made mistakes in family businesses, three categories come to mind:

  • Mistakes around what we say.  When in conflict, people sometimes say hurtful things to one another.  With the ongoing nature of family relationships, a hurtful statement can create decades of resentment.
  • Mistakes around how we behave.  By virture of their economic interest and family name, owners and their family are often granted a level of respect by others.  Behaving foolishly or treating others poorly harms not only individual relationships but the whole organization.
  • Mistakes involving our assumptions.  Families have generational histories, unique cultures and behavioral norms which, when not discussed, create certain expectations about how the futue might look.  By not clarifying assumptions early, we almost ensure disappointment later in our families.

How to learn?

To learn from our mistakes and get it right, we must first become aware of our wrongs.  The quickest way to become aware is to be open to feedback, allowing someone's critique of you to sink in, considering how their appraisal might ring true.  It's not easy to override the self-defense mechanisms of fight or flight;  we usually want to defend what we say and do.

If the evaluation of your mistake is on target, the second step is to admit, to yourself and to those affected, the error of your ways.  Acknowledgement that you were wrong won't change what you did, but it begins to repair the break with the other person.  Admission opens the door to a better future.

The final step in the learning process involves reflecting on what you can or will do better.  How will you change?  There may be a chance to fix your current mistake, but in many cases, the damage is done.  The real question is this:  Will you do it differently next time?  Will you speak or behave differently?  Will you discuss some of the difficult decisions of the future?