Vulnerability, Honesty & Being Human

'Searching for a Van'

30 January 2023
Effective Storytelling - Podcast
Short stories with key learning points for personal development and professional development. Often to make you smile, and always to make you think.
One of my most embarrassing moments, professionally, and how through the empathy and support of those I let down, I learned some massive lessons…
As a novice trainer, I was running a residential training course for a senior management group. It was a wet, grey, drizzly day, and they had an outdoor task. They had been tasked to work in separate teams, and eventually find a van to take them back to the hotel (similar to ‘A Fair Cop’, mentioned earlier).I waited for their arrival. And waited…..and waited. After quite a while, I decided I’d better check where they were, and went to where I’d parked the van. No sign of the group. I decided to check the map reference I’d given them…… it was the wrong reference!I’d accidentally marked an electric cable as the site, rather than a road!!In a panic, and with mounting fear as to the consequences of my mistake, I set off across the fields to check the reference I’d given them….And there they were. Sitting down, thoroughly wet, thoroughly miserable, and really, REALLY annoyed…..! I apologised, explained my error, and in silence we worked our way back to the van, and back to the hotel, where I asked them to get dry, and meet for a ‘debrief’ in half an hour…This was one of the longest and most painful half hours of my life so far….what would I say? How could Irectify the mistake? How could I ever look them in the face again? How could I justify ever running a training programme again...for anyone, let alone this group.As I entered the debrief room, there they all sat, in stony silence, with a range of facial expressions, none of them good. I took a deep breath….“I’m truly sorry”, I began. “It was a simple mistake, and one I should not have made. It’s a big lesson for me, to check more thoroughly. I don’t know what else to say—so let’s move on….”...and we did. And it got better….Afterwards, the Director came up to me in the bar, and offered to buy me a drink. He said: “We were all furious, and wanting your scalp. But you said exactly the right thing. You apologised, explained why it had happened, how you felt, and how you would learn from it. That was all that was needed. If you’d tried to avoid responsibility, or find an excuse, I would have walked out, the rest would have followed, and you wouldn’t be asked back. As it is, we’ve all accepted your apology,delivered with due humility, and are happy to move on to the rest of the programme.”And I worked with them for several years after...
When someone has made a mistake (which, to be fair, is going to happen) you have fundamentally two choices: to punish, or develop. There may be occasions when the cost and failure has been so great that removal or dismissal is the only realistic option; but often the better decision might be to see it as a learning opportunity, and in so doing, not only see it as training, but also a way of gaining commitment.
We are all human. We all make mistakes.
Often a failure is a great opportunity to turn things around...

There are several take aways from this story:

  • We are all human
  • Psychological safety
  • Pivotal moment
  • Anticipating the worst
  • Pass it on
  • Empathy

We are all human

We all make mistakes – no one is infallible, so it might be helpful to develop a culture in which mistakes are framed as such – so that people do not live in fear of making a mistake

Psychological safety

Being more ‘mistake-tolerant’ and less ‘mistake-averse’ is part of creating a psychologically safe environment. may have real benefits, such as people coming forward and raising concerns; and people being more prepared to take risks and be more creative

Pivotal moments

These are moments when the choice made can make a real difference. Dealing with a mistake is one of those moments. If you’ve ever made a mistake and been criticised or punished for it, how did that feel? And if it was a learning opportunity, then how did that feel? That pivotal moment may have had a significant impact on your motivation, morale, commitment, confidence and future performance and loyalty.

Anticipating the worst

In the story, the new employee feared the worst. But the worst didn’t happen – quite the reverse. It’s typical for many that, in facing a difficult situation, we fear the worst – we even catastrophise – identifying then anticipating the very worst that could happen – in this case, getting fired. So although in this example it might seem reasonable to have feared the worst, in general, be careful not to develop a habit of fearing the worst for every outcome – not only will that create stresses and strains that prove to be unnecessary, but might also encourage you to constantly ‘play safe’, and as a result, diminish or hide your best efforts and potential success and satisfaction.

Pass it on

You may have heard of the phrase ‘pass it on’ – which means, if you’ve received a benefit or gift, anything positive, then pass it on. This story is a case in point. The person who spoke to me later that evening knew how I felt, because they had experienced something similar, and had wished they had been treated more kindly. So this was their opportunity to pass that learning on

Empathy

The above example was also extremely empathetic. They were able to put themselves in my shoes, and appreciate how I must be feeling, and how they could show support. For me it has always been a classic example of empathy, and that response has certainly encouraged me to respond to others’ mistakes in a similar way, and to put myself in the other person’s shoes.  

... you have fundamentally two choices:
 to punish, or to develop.  
Effective Storytelling - Podcast
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