Trying not to screw things up

Jul 12, 2009 by

I’ve learned something about myself recently – maybe it holds true for you too: the longer I don’t write, the harder it becomes to start back up.

Looking at my blog, it seems I haven’t updated in two months. Crap. But every time I chide myself for not writing, it perversely kills the desire to write even more. I guess I was just waiting for some perfect moment or topic to kick me off again. And I finally got it, courtesy of that fabulous blogger/PhD student/leader/thinker (and my personal friend): Rosetta Thurman.

Rosetta recently blogged for Jobs for Change about How to Overcome Nonprofit Workplace Mistakes with Maturity. As someone who recently started a new job and who has no small track record of mistakes from previous jobs (not to mention elsewhere), it caught my attention right away. Rosetta’s blog at Jobs for Change is addressed mostly to newer and younger nonprofit folks, but let me enlighten you to something: even those of us who have been in the nonprofit world for some time still screw things up.

In fact, I find that the first several months at a new job mainly consists of me desperately trying to AVOID making mistakes and then having to fix them once they’re made. Rosetta’s excellent post encouraged me to share a few of my own tips and ideas.

The proactive approach: try to avoid making a mistake at all

Ok, so if you’ve read this blog more than once, you’ve probably figured out that I’m sort-of an obsessive preparer. I guess I don’t really like surprises too much. And while that may not bode well for my ability to be spontaneous, it has paid dividends in other ways. So here I restate it, yet again: be prepared and pay attention (they are two sides of the same coin). One of the reason you’re bound to make mistakes at a new job is because you don’t know as much as everyone else there. Therefore, you need to learn! Read, reread, study, make lists, record voice notes or notes on paper – do whatever you have to do to know the answer before you get a question.

This includes everything from knowing the office’s administrative procedures (who do you go to when you have a computer problem? What shipping company does your organization use?) to trying to feel out the personalities of those around you. I try to conduct informal interviews with coworkers to figure out the style and needs of any new bosses. I try to pay attention in meetings and in conversations to see and hear what people find important. Why? Because sometimes a ‘mistake’ is in the eye of the beholder: if your organization tries to adopt a very formal tone with external emails and you go with something more colloquial, it could be seen as a mistake. But if you’re paying attention and preparing beforehand, some of these may never even come up.

Beyond being prepared, I think one of most responsible but difficult ways to avoid mistakes is to be honest with your employer about what you can and can’t do. You were obviously hired because you have skills and knowledge and because you fit in with the team. But you don’t know everything – you may think you do, but you absolutely do not, so give that up right now. If you can admit that, you likely won’t get tasked with work that would lead to screw ups. My example: I know very little about the issues my organization works on. I’m learning quickly, but since my job isn’t focused on policy or research, I really don’t need to be an expert to do my job well. So when I’m asked questions about the specifics or asked to take on tasks about detailed issues, I gently say ‘no’. Let me be clear: I’m not avoiding tasks because I don’t want to do them, I just understand that if I try to do them, I will likely make mistakes and slow things down. Instead, I ask someone else to take charge and then offer to take on a piece of their work that I can do to balance things out. Knowing oneself can be the key to avoiding some of those mistakes.

The reactive approach: oops! You’ve gone and done it…

If all that prep doesn’t work for you and you end up making a mistake – which is nearly inevitable – here’s what you can do: get over it. Rosetta mentioned this in her post, but I must reiterate it here. Take the mistake and remember it, but don’t let it bog you down. If you’re worried about the old mistake, you won’t be paying attention enough to avoid a new mistake or you’ll be too scared of messing up to take any sort of initiative. And that would definitely be a mistake.

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  • Great post, Elisa! To your excellent point about being honest about you can and can’t do, I would add the notion that it should go beyond things like content knowledge. One of the best bosses I ever had was really good because she understood that I’m good at big picture thinking and coming up with ideas and fleshing them out, but TERRIBLE at day-to-day details and maintenance of a project. I mean, I can do it if I have to, but I’d prefer not to because when I screw up, it’s always in that kind of work. This goes back that that excellent advice from Marcus Buckingham in “Now Discover Your Strengths,” where he says we should spend less time working on our “weaknesses” and more time on playing to our strengths, partnering with people who can bolster us in areas where we aren’t as strong. That is an approach that has tended to work well for me and I think makes a lot of sense for most people. I’ve also become clearer with people about what I can and can’t do for them as a result, which makes them happier with my work.

    Again–great post. Thanks for sharing!