Lessons from the Court: Hidden Errors
By: Jen O’Meara, Ph.D
I think we all have a tendency to want to bury our mistakes. This may be especially true when those mistakes don’t adversely affect outcomes: I mean, if a mistake ultimately didn’t cause any problems, what’s the point of calling attention to it? On the one hand, I completely understand this logic. On the other hand, a very good reason for calling attention to those mistakes is because important lessons can be learned from them.
These ‘hidden’ mistakes are committed regularly on the court. For example, let’s say the ball is coming to me and I can hit one of two shots in return. One shot — Shot A — is a clear winner that will end the rally. The other shot — Shot B — will probably be returned by my opponent and therefore extend the rally by at least two shots. In the heat of the moment, I hit Shot B. My opponent’s return goes straight to my doubles partner, who hits a winner. My partner and I take the point, bump fists, and line up to serve again. All good, right?
Let’s add some numbers here. If this scenario plays out ten times over the course of a match, and we end up winning the point eight of those times, I could argue that my success rate — based on the outcome for our team after I hit my shot — is 80%. (Please keep in mind here that this is English-Professor math and not Stats-Professor math.) An 80% success rate would typically warrant after-match beverages and selfies. On the flip side, if I ignore the ultimate outcome of the point and focus on my individual shot selection, I am a dreadful 0 for 10 in selecting the correct shot…a “success” rate that means I should probably sell my racquets on eBay and use my racquetballs to play fetch with the dog. As ego-deflating as examining these hidden errors may be, good players recognize and acknowledge these hidden errors, and then use them as motivation to improve their game.
The process of reexamining decisions to find hidden errors — or, at least, to find better alternatives that may not have been considered — provides leaders with valuable opportunities for learning and growth. Your project finished on time and on budget, for example, but is it really possible that you made zero judgment errors in the hundreds of decisions you made along the way? Your unilateral policy against granting personal time off on Mondays is well established, but are there no extenuating circumstances that might warrant an exception to that policy? You insist on assigning all tasks to your team members, but might there be benefits to allowing those on your team to self-select at least some of those tasks?
The longevity of the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a tribute to the general wisdom of that philosophy. Note, though, that you’ve probably never heard anybody say “if it ain’t broke, don’t improve it.” That’s because improvement is almost always welcome, and improvement is exactly what surfacing hidden mistakes can generate. Everyone, of course, should reflect on their obvious mistakes. Leaders, however, should also reflect on their hidden mistakes as well: failing to uncover and interrogate those hidden mistakes will leave a lot of valuable opportunities for improvement on the table.
Jen O’Meara is an Associate Professor of Business Communications and a 3-time US Open national racquetball champion.