I once worked at a place where everyone was focused on avoiding mistakes. It was a deeply engrained cultural value that came, I think, from the president of the company, who came from a difficult family background.
It was a challenging place to work.
Whenever something went wrong, the company went into a frenzied process of documenting the error and pinpointing what (and who) had caused it. This was meant to be so we could avoid making the error a second time, but we jokingly (and not-so-jokingly) called the document the “Blame Matrix.”
The result: paralysis. The cost of making a mistake was so high, it just felt safer to do as little as possible.
And we made a lot of mistakes. More than other places I’ve worked. Sure, we were pretty good at avoiding the same mistake twice. But we more than made up for it in really strange one-time errors, the kind you make when you’re so afraid of messing up that you don’t notice the obvious problem that’s right in front of you.
As I eventually figured out, sometimes fear of mistakes is even more damaging than mistakes themselves.
But just sloppily ignoring the possibility of errors is not good either. You’ve got to use a meaningful level of prudence.
It’s a balancing act all professional people have to work on.
I’ve noticed it’s heightened at a lot of nonprofit organizations.
If you or the people around you are paralyzed by fear of mistakes, here’s an article in the Harvard Business Review you might find very helpful: How to Overcome Your Fear of Making Mistakes.
Here are the practical highlights of the article:
- Don’t be afraid or ashamed of your fear
It’s reasonable to feel afraid sometimes. It heightens your awareness. But the fear tends to increase in hard times. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re feeling this way. And don’t beat up others for it.
It’s natural to try to keep up a brave face, but it can be unhealthy. Especially when it drives you to deny the difficult reality we’re in and berate yourself for the emotions you feel.
Acknowledge your fear — to yourself, and to at least a few other people in your life. Channel your fear into useful activities that allow you to prevent errors without focusing on them.
- Use emotional agility skills
The key to keeping your emotions from causing you to be less effective is to practice these learnable skills:
- Label your thoughts and feelings. Stating your fears out loud helps defang them.
- Accept reality. There are many things you can’t control — especially other people’s behavior. List those things that you know you need to accept and work with.
- Act on your values. Your values are your strength. Consciously make your values part of your decisions and reactions.
- Don’t try to reduce uncertainty to zero. It can’t be done.
- Focus on processes, not outcomes
While you can’t completely control outcomes, you can control processes and reduce the chances of failure. Look for ways to make sure you have the information you need, to eliminate your blind spots, to discover problems earlier rather than later. This will not only help reduce mistakes, it will give you a way to channel your fear into productive activities.
- Broaden your thinking
Think big. When you put your fear in context with everything else in life, it can help you clarify your thinking. Even thinking about all the other things that cause fear can give you perspective.
Doing this can help you get into problem-solving mode, which itself makes fear easier to face.
- Recognize the value of leisure
Fear wears you down. And being worn down makes you fearful.
Take it easy!
Take breaks. A week or two. A day off. Even short times away from the grind can help you not only recharge your energy, but increase your ability to solve problems.
- Detach from judgment-clouding noise
Fear makes us pay attention to too many things. You’ve probably noticed how you can fall into obsessively checking social media or news constantly when you’re afraid. At work, we can over-monitor people around us, and be constantly checking and re-checking data. (I can’t count how many times I’ve watched as fundraisers started taking emergency steps because results to the latest campaign were behind where they should be … only to discover a day or two later that there’s no problem at all.)
Limit your information intake! Make sure you take the time to think about the information you have. This can make you much more effective.
Fear of making mistakes can really do a number on your work and on your life.
Do your best to be mindful: Fear has the most power when you aren’t aware what it’s doing to you!
Knowing you have other people who care about you, can give you advice, and listen to you is another way to beat the fear of mistakes. You can tap into the community by joining The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You also get access to tons of tools, tips, courses and more to help you build your fundraising career. Find out more here.
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