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Leadership – Give people space to make mistakes

One of my favourite quotes I have read recently is that “If you want to be good at something, you have to prepared to be bad at it first”. When you take on new employees, when your staff take on a new responsibility or when you decide to take on a new challenge/role/job etc, you are going to be bad at it at first. You are going to make mistakes. This is normal, otherwise it really isn’t a challenge and there is little room for learning. The hardest thing is putting your ego aside and making yourself vulnerable enough to give it a go. You’ll make mistakes and fail, but then adjust your actions/behaviour based on the learning.

This is not emotionally easy, especially as a leader. A leader feels expected to set the direction and be the guiding light, instead of being the one in front, unsure and stumbling over yourself. However, we are often more critical of ourselves than others are of us. Our staff expect us to be vulnerable and give things a try, because it ultimately gives them permission to try new things, fail and learn from their mistakes.

Most mistakes can be fixed

Realistically, most mistakes can be fixed. When we hire a new clinician, we don’t expect their plans or decision making to be great. They don’t have the experience and the time in front of patients to make excellent decisions and achieve great outcomes. Even if the clinician does a terrible job and really flares up a patient, it is usually not hard to review the plan. You can then change the direction and settle down the patient’s injury.

If we don’t give them space it try things out, make mistakes and learn, they will never get better as clinicians. Thus ultimately, they will never become the independent staff members you need them to be.

Freedom within boundaries

It is a fine balancing act between giving enough freedom for a staff member to learn and too much that it overwhelms them.

Many years ago, when we first started training staff, we tried to teach them everything they needed to know on all the major joint areas, get them good at assessments and treatment before they were put in front of patients. This usually meant about 3-4 weeks of tutorials, observation and practice before we thought they were “ready”. This was often a complete information overload and it would take months for the clinician to absorb the information and really understand what to do.

So, several years ago, we turned the training process on its head. Instead of making the clinician ready to do full assessments before they were able to see patients, we put them in front of patients from day 1 and got them comfortable implementing the plan of a senior clinician. That way, they got comfortable doing the treatment and learning the outcome of the treatment, before needing to work out assessment and diagnosis on top of that.

When they were comfortable and understood the treatment well, they get taught a limited assessment and have limited decision making, before moving onto to full assessment. This way they slowly get more and more responsibility and decision making as their experience grows and their depth of knowledge improves, a win-win for all.

Don’t punish mistakes, but be hard on NOT trying

The biggest mistake you can make in our business is NOT giving something a go. When a staff member thinks they have to show a brave face and a lack of vulnerability to show that they “are in charge”, usually everyone around them sees that they have stopped growing and developing except that particular staff member themselves.

Our hardest task is to work with that staff member to let go, make themselves vulnerable again and start learning (making mistakes and getting things wrong again).

This is an aspect that I have to demonstrate and lead from in front. I am usually working on a project/task/system that makes me uncomfortable and anxious. If I am not feeling a bit anxious about a task I am undertaking at work, I am not pushing myself enough and NOT, through my actions, giving the other staff members permission to be vulnerable and give something a go.

As a result, the business is no longer just a place with one leader and many followers, but a place with that raises leaders to be innovators and growth builders.

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