When Mistakes Are Okay


I met John very early in my career as a time management trainer and speaker. He had put himself through university by doing casual farm work. His story about how to teach someone a new task is still as vivid as the day he told it.

It was his first uni summer holidays.  John’s dad had a small dairy farm – not big enough for him to afford to employ his son, so John decided to seek work with a hay contractor. As it happened, two local gangs were advertising for someone to drive their balers.

He showed up for the first appointment. ‘Right, young man,’ said the gang boss. ‘Stand on the foot plate and I’ll show you what to do.’ They did a few loops round the paddock, heavy baler clunking along behind, hay sucking in, bales popping out.

‘Now it’s your turn. Let’s see what you can do.’

John and the boss changed spots. As you’d expect, he was a bit nervous.

The experience was fraught with tension.

‘No, that’s not good enough. Stop, back up, get that bit you’ve missed.’ (If you’ve ever tried to manoeuvre heavy machines around tight corners you’ll know it’s easier to say than do!)

After a few rounds of constant corrections and increasing frustration from the very exacting boss, John’s competence and confidence virtually dissolved, leaving a very tense and nervous young man at the tractor wheel making more and more mistakes.

Eventually the man said, ‘That’ll do. Don’t call me, I’ll call you’. A very despondent John went home to shovel cow shit.

The next morning, quite apprehensive after the previous day’s experience, he rocked up for a trial with the second contractor.

It started out in a similar way. He perched beside the boss and watched. Then the tractor pulled up and the boss gave up his seat, waving John into it. To his surprise the older man didn’t then re-position himself on the foot plate. Instead he said, ‘I’ve got to pop up to the shed to get something – I’ll be about 20 minutes. Have a play round the corners of this paddock. When I come back I’ll help you with anything you haven’t worked out.’

25 minutes later John found the contractor, leaning on the fence. By that time he’d made a few mistakes, sorted out most of them, and was feeling much more capable of doing a good job.

That summer was a great one. He really enjoyed working for an excellent boss who understood the fine art of how to give a new employee just the right amount of support and encouragement.

Two applications:

  1. Whatever we focus on enlarges. Said another way, we get what we expect. The first chap expected mistakes and focused on them – consequently he saw plenty. The second one expected John to master the task after an appropriate amount of teaching. He focused on the good outcomes, and consequently got excellent success.
  2. Give people time and space to learn from their mistakes, without standing over them. (Of course, it’s the boss’s responsibility to make sure that possible errors are something you can live with!) Think of how you feel when someone with a critical eye watches you try a new task – for most of us, our nervous system shuts down. (At a boat ramp near us I’ve watched a number of nervous boaties bring in new boats when there’s a queue of others waiting to either enter or leave the water. Glad it wasn’t me!)

Micro-management causes stress. A relaxed attitude is an important tool to gain relaxed and competent staff.


Robyn Pearce CSP


Robyn Pearce is a researcher, author, international speaker, business woman and time management specialist. She is also a Past President of The National Sperakers' Association of NZ and immediate Past President of IFFPS - the international body for professional speakers based in the USA.

You may also like:

Or read some more free business tips:

Filed under Leadership Development and 1 other. Posted by The Corporate Toolbox on