Copyright Lew Sauder


A January 8, 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” by Amy Chua expounded on how Chinese mothers don’t allow their children to indulge in unnecessary “luxuries” such as:

  • Attend sleepovers
  • Have play-dates
  • Play computer games
  • Watch TV
  • Get any grade less than an A
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities

She goes on to explain that Western parents concern themselves too much with a child’s self-esteem, praising their children for an A-minus, while the Chinese mother would gasp in horror.

Within a few days, the on-line version of the article had receive over 4,000 reader comments and over 100,000 Facebook comments. While a predominant percentage of reader comments were in disagreement with some charges of racism and bullying, there were a fair number of opinions with conditional agreement that we allow our children too many diversions from their academics and are far too tolerant of failings in our children.

This article and the myriad of comments got me to thinking about tolerance for mistakes. As a parent, I’ve always tried to teach my kids that throughout life, you are supposed to make mistakes. It shows that you are taking risks, experimenting and hopefully, learning from it.

My son plays baseball and, although he’s a ton better than his dad ever was, It’s unlikely that he’ll make the big leagues. That’s not why he plays. Aside from the fact that he loves the sport and has a lot of fun, we allow him to play because it also teaches him a lot about failure. With a.300 batting average, a batter is considered a great hitter, even though it means that they failed more than twice as often as they succeeded. When a baseball player plays the field, they’re bound to boot the ball and make an error. It’s part of the game. I’ve seen parents who punish or berate their kids for making errors or striking out. They justify it by saying that they set high standards for their children. We try to talk to our son about why it happened and what he could learn from it to avoid doing it again – or at least less often. The other parents’ high standards seem based on error-avoidance rather than on learning and improving.

I see the same intolerance for errors in the workplace. Performance evaluations are established with high scores given for little-to-no margin for error. Project reviews are based on completing the project on time and within budget. Incentives for innovation, risk-taking and creativity are rarely established.

We’ve all heard the famous story of Thomas Edison’s assistant stating that he had failed in 10,000 experiments for creating an incandescent light bulb. Edison responded saying “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I often wonder how Edison would have fared had he been working within the parameters of a modern performance evaluation.

The intolerance camp would argue that making it okay for people to screw up will just create a company full of screw-ups. I guess that’s true if you open that tolerance up to every blunder, but that’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m willing to bet that each of Edison’s 10,000 faux pas were not only unique, but documented as a lesson learned so that each one was not repeated.

I’ve known people at work that not only make a lot of mistakes, but continually repeat them. They didn’t take notes in a meeting and then forgot to perform their action item. They don’t proof read their work and distribute deliverables full of unprofessional looking typos. This happens over and over. (I must add that, despite these failures, they become phenomenally successful at driving me nuts!) There should be no tolerance for repeat offenders of mistakes.

But new errors based on a calculated risk should be recognized. Sometimes I dream of a work environment that rewards people for taking risks and screwing up. When it happens, they hold a celebratory meeting saying “Bob screwed up and this is what we can all learn from it. Thanks for the great opportunity Bob!” If someone repeats the error, they get pulled aside and told “We’ve already learned that one. You didn’t take a risk, you just got sloppy”. If we could easily decipher risk-taking from sloppiness and reward and punish accordingly, we might have a much higher level of learning in our business environments.

What has your experience been? Does your workplace value taking calculated risks and tolerate mistakes for the sake of learning, or do they expect perfection and punish the imperfect?

Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting ( ) He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.Article Source: