Litmus Test

I am breaking my own rule: I hate litmus tests, as they assume nothing else matters. Alas, life might be easier if it were more black-and-white, but far less interesting.

Yesterday I was told about the situation of a young person we know who had a bad day at work. [Wow! That can happen?] Got yelled at by the boss for a mistake (that he didn’t make, by the way) and was thoroughly demotivated by the event. The story reminded me of Bob Sutton’s key test of the adaptive culture of an organization: what happens when someone makes a mistake?

Another wow!! People make mistakes! I make lots of ‘em. So do you. So does everyone else… welcome to the club. Few mistakes in business are unrecoverable, as very few effect life-and-death.  Best actions in the event of a mistake: clean it up fast and do it again until you get the result you intended.  And managers: don’t attribute your anger to your commitment to the customer. Customers often expect mistakes, just as they expect you’ll jump into action to correct it. Studies show that customers actually think better of you for having quickly corrected a mistake than they did had the mistake never occurred.

We often write, speak, and breathe management systems.  That’s the ‘hard stuff’ (meaning tangible) of management.  It’s so important yet so ignored.  To make the management system really work to create a high-performing organization, you also have to address the ‘soft stuff’ (people, emotions, culture, et al), which is even more important.  Bob Sutton’s books, The No Asshole Rule, and Good Boss, Bad Boss are great counsel to all of us who manage.  There are no strict formulas, but Bob’s research has uncovered a surprisingly small number of behaviors we can adopt… and avoid… that would help everyone in every organization.

So, to our young friend, for whom getting out of bed this morning was probably a challenge, we say ‘hang in there… bosses make mistakes, too.  The litmus test is not in the mistake, but in the response.’  And to you: if you make a mistake where you work, how does your shop fair in the litmus test?

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One Response to “Litmus Test”

  1. Ben Lichtenwalner Says:

    Well stated Joe. I look for failures in potential business partners and hires for this reason: it builds character and teaches the greatest lessons. We learn and grow very little through success alone.

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