How do you handle honest mistakes in communication? Do you beat yourself up? Are you quick to find fault, or do you step too far back and miss opportunities for greater understanding? Do you give or receive feedback from women differently than feedback from men?
I’ve had the opportunity to ponder these questions up close lately in my interactions with women leaders of two community groups where I am an active volunteer.
In one group, the female leader is very organized and adept with details and almost always gets things right. She is human, though, and recently she made an honest mistake in communication — an error from which no harm came. She followed up with our committee confessing what she did and asking for guidance from the committee about how to proceed. She apologized in another follow up email and brought the topic back up when we met in person, leading the intro with yet another apology. It was a small error. I wasn’t in her head, but my sense was that she was very tough on herself for missing a little detail.
The next morning, as part of another community group, I received several emails from another female leader about an honest mistake I’d made in getting information out just before midnight the night before. Yes, I could have slowed down and double-checked my dates—but ultimately, like in the story above, the error was inconsequential and easily corrected. Nonetheless, receiving multiple emails pointing out my mistake bothered me. And then it bothered me that it bothered me.
Could this be part of the perfection trap? Do we as women have a tendency to be extra hard on ourselves or other women when honest mistakes are made?
It seems that many of us do. Debora Spar, Barnard College President, wrote a whole book about the pressure we as women put on ourselves and the girls/ women in our lives to do it all and be perfect all the time. It’s an exhausting and unsustainable phenomenon that Spar adeptly details in Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.
Spar has many practical strategies for combating the stranglehold of perfection-seeking. One key way is to embrace “the concept of ‘satisficing,’ an economics term that might be best translated as a combination of cutting corners and settling for second best” (Spar, p. 243).
As a recovering perfectionist myself, here are some strategies I use to keep myself in check and loosen the noose of rightness:
- Resist the urge to over-apologize. For an honest mistake, say “I’m sorry” once and leave it at that.
- When you see that someone else has made an honest mistake, point it out to them once and only once.
- Use humor. Human communication is, after all, pretty darn funny.
- Give yourself a break.
- Give the people who over-offer feedback a break.
How we think about getting something wrong and how we give and receive feedback when we notice or make honest mistakes are at the heart of Powership. We’re not after perfection. We’re after working better together—getting our work done, holding each other accountable, showing mutual support, giving ourselves freedom to be ourselves and enjoying the work we do together. It’s not about the game of gotcha—for ourselves or others. No one wins when we play that game.