I grew up outdoors. Simply put; if you are at the top of a mountain in a rainstorm, or 100ft up a tree, or standing on a cliff edge (or, as I once was: standing at the highest point of the roof of a university halls of residence in a storm) and you make a mistake, no-one’s coming to help you. You stand or fall on your own resources.
My uncle Gerald took my brother and I up into the woods and we would play at survival camp, sometimes for days at a time. He had many catchphrases designed to get us through these experiences. But one of the main ones was “don’t apologise, just improve”. So, as his cup of coffee was kicked over, his bacon got dropped in the fire, his sleeping bag was trodden on; we would start explaining how it happened, and he would just smile and say, “don’t apologise, just improve”. Implication. This could have been avoided, if you’d been better.
And so that is what I did. I learned to put my coffee on a log, how to cook bacon without losing it, to pay attention to other people’s property. To pack all my own kit away so nothing got lost. To bring the right kit with me so I wasn’t cold, hungry, wet, tired or bored.
This mindset suits me well in consulting (although I do sometimes have to apologise and improve). I just want things to get better.
At school, we would play keepie-uppies in a big circle for a game called ‘one touch, one bounce’. You had three lives – if you made three mistakes, you were out. I had an epiphany playing and watching this game.
Here, you could see two sorts of people: those who would blame anyone or everyone else if they lost the ball in a bid to save their own ‘lives’, and those that proudly stood up to be counted to claim their failure. Funny thing was, there was some reverse psychology going on: only those reveling in admitting their failure were actually backing themselves.
In ‘one touch, one bounce’, as in life, making everything other people’s fault doesn’t serve us, on three levels:
- We are effectively admitting that we can’t afford to lose a life, because we might make many more mistakes.
- We alienate people, piling them up against us, as we blame them (fairly or unfairly).
- The negative spirit degrades the teamwork on which the game relies.
The reverse is extraordinarily powerful. Claiming a mistake (even if it wasn’t strictly/completely yours) shows that you do back yourself not to make any more errors. You can survive with two lives, or one. Because you got this. This strategy demonstrates huge self-confidence, allies people to you because of your selflessness, and unites a team.
If you find yourself in a meeting this week, saying “Ah… that’s not finished because Jeff hasn’t done it for me yet”, or “Ah, I didn’t sort that out because no-one asked me to”, or “We haven’t done this well, but we did do what you asked us” or any other such lowball, indirect blaming and abdication of responsibly; or, if you simply realise you haven’t delivered/ forgot/ didn’t do it right, then remember: even if you make a massive hash of something important, don’t compound it by admitting that you are not even prepared to take responsibility, and are therefore, in this moment, weak, alienating and a negative team player.
Because everyone knows that’s what you are doing. Instead, by owning it, by saying “I screwed up, but ‘I got this’”, you initiate the chance to improve. And, I’ll save the lesson “don’t make the same mistake twice!” for another time…