I initially wrote this story in my blog on SQL databases (you can find that here) and realized the story could easily fit here, too, that lessons can sometimes come from the most unexpected places. There’s a line in this story below that has become kind of a running joke between my son and me, in large part because of the wisdom in it, and how old he was when he came upon that wisdom. That little line became the title of the story, and as I finished writing it, I realized that the story was both about that line, and about success, and how the two fit together. So with that as an introduction, please allow me to share a story that happened many years ago, but still has wisdom and relevance even today.
When my son was little – about 2, we went out to the Pacific coast of Washington State and stayed in a vacation house for a few days.
He got to run on the beach…
Play with things he’d never played with…
play with airplanes…
…and just really, really had a good time.
It was wonderful to watch. For those of you who have children, you’ll recognize this.
He was also at this stage in life where he just wanted to do everything by himself – and, for those of you who have children, you’ll recognize some of this, too.
He was a “big boy” now, and he wanted to take care of things in a “big boy” way, so when he had to go take care of some, shall we say, personal business, he wanted to do it, as he said, “all by myself”.
And so, like many parents, I waited for him to call me and tell me he was done, so I could help him finish up the paperwork, so to speak. And he didn’t call, and didn’t call, and didn’t call.
Finally I called in and asked if he was okay. I heard a strained, “I’m fine!” – and then silence. Then I heard a thump, followed by another thump.
Silence followed by thumps is never good. It seemed like it was time to go check on him, so I rushed in to see what was the matter – and in half a second I could see what had happened.
He’d been sitting on the toilet – the “grownup” toilet that everyone else used, not the little one he would normally use, and he’d been struggling to hold himself up with his hands to keep from falling in.
When he was done, and being a little tired from holding himself up, he wanted to be a “grownup”, he skootched himself forward until he could get off, but in doing so, left quite a bit of “evidence” on the toilet seat, the front of the toilet, and all the way up his back that he’d done so. It was clear he’d lost his balance a bit as he was trying to stand and had bumped into the wall, leaning there to hold himself up.
The, um, “evidence” was there, too.
He was standing there in the middle of the bathroom, ‘pullups’ down around his feet, surveying the scene with an almost analytical detachment when I rushed in and saw the whole thing. I could clearly see what had happened based on what I just described, but instinctively wanting to confirm it, I blurted out, “Michael! What happened?!”
His answer was priceless…
“Well, Papa. Sometimes… things go wrong.”
There it was, plain and simple. “Sometimes, things go wrong.”
Despite the best of intentions, despite the best will in the world, as he said, “Sometimes, things go wrong.”
People make mistakes, or don’t live up to our expectations.
Things go wrong.
Things break, or don’t work like we expect.
Things go wrong.
No matter what we do in life…
Things go wrong.
So how do you handle it when they do?
And, when you have a simple acknowledgement of the fact up front, how on earth can you be angry?
How do you – at work or at home – handle it when things go wrong?
What, if you were faced with that situation I mentioned, would be the most important thing?
Seems like they’d be like this, in order:
- Clean up Michael (as in: clean up the source of the – we’ll call it “evidence”)
- Clean up the toilet seat (as in: make sure things are functional again)
- Clean up the wall (as in: take care of any – we’ll call it ‘collateral damage’ here)
- This one’s incredibly important: Remember: Sometimes, THINGS GO WRONG – equipment breaks or wears out, code for our computers has bugs in it, and humans, both personally and professionally, are not perfect.
Yelling at my son about making a mess he already told me he didn’t mean to make wasn’t going to solve anything.
Managers yelling at employees when things go wrong generally don’t have much of a good result either, nor, often, does yelling in personal situations.
The important thing there was to help clean up the mess, then reassure him and let him know that everything was okay. Just like you need to reassure and encourage the people involved so they’re not afraid to, shall we say, ‘get back in the saddle’.
And this takes us to…
5. If you want to keep this kind of thing from happening again:
Personally: I can’t stress the importance of communication – not just speaking, but being willing to listen. I can’t tell you how crucial that is, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not perfect in this and have definitely made my share of mistakes, so please don’t take this as some perfect being sitting on the top of a mountain dispensing wisdom. Nope, I’m down in the trenches, muffing things up along with everyone else, trying to learn the lessons God has for me, and trying to share the experiences along the way.
Also, (this one is challenging) realize yours might not be the only right view there. (Yes, hard as it is to understand this in the moment, it’s possible for two people to be right about something – and still disagree with each other). Often, one will be thinking short term, one long term. Or, one may be thinking, we’ll call it ‘rationally’ while the other is thinking ’emotionally’.
Note: One is just as valid as the next.
Professionally: Communication here is just as critical. You might have one person thinking long term, but unable to articulate it, while another is focused on the immediate problem, and is more vocal.
Both are valid.
Be sure to listen to the quiet people in your organization. Make sure your people are equipped with the proper tools to do the job they’re expected to do. Going back to my son’s analogy, it’s good to make sure the saddle’s the right size in the first place. Instead of your people using all their strength to keep from falling into a place they’d rather not be because the hole – or the responsibility – is too big, make sure they have the skills (read: training) to be big enough to keep from falling in in the first place.
Does that make sense?
There are many ways to handle situations like this, but for those of you doing management of some kind, understand that the minds of your employees are the most vital things you have. Most often, it’s in there that the solutions to the problems lie. Making them quake in fear of you isn’t a productive use of your time, isn’t a productive use of their skills, and doesn’t make them feel comfortable getting, as I said, ‘back in the saddle’.
So, whether it’s in your work life, or your personal life, when dealing with folks:
Respect them for their skills, whatever they may be.
Forgive them for their mistakes, whatever they were.
Put the past where it belongs, behind you, and in doing so, you’ll help them learn, and you’ll teach them something far, far more valuable than you realize.
You’ll teach them they can trust you to have their back when they need you.
You’ll teach them they can take risks and fail, and not worry about their jobs.
But in setting them up like that – they’ll also feel comfortable right at the edge of their skill envelope, and, as one leader (the former CIO of the company I work for – yes, this means you, Dale) once said, “it’s when you’re at the edge of your envelope that you make mistakes, but that’s also where you learn the most. Yes, sometimes you fail, but sometimes you succeed beyond your wildest dreams.”
He was right, and I appreciated that sentiment more than I ever really found words for.
It also boggled my mind that someone, with all the education he had, with all the experience he had, at the peak of his career in a company could come to the same conclusion that my then two year old son came up with on his own.
It shouldn’t be that hard for those of us somewhere between the two to come to similar conclusions, should it?
In fact, it seems like a huge part of success comes from understanding, and accepting, that…
Things go wrong.
(C) 2011 Tom Roush – all rights reserved