Anxiety can wreak havoc in so many ways, especially at work. It can affect the quality and quantity of your work as well as the impression you give to your colleagues. It can show up in sneaky ways ranging from self doubt and under-performance to excessive control and over-performance. Either will get in the way of doing your best work, and once it’s done working you over at work, it’ll trash your work life balance.. But don’t panic! With a shift in perspective you can reframe your anxiety so you and your work (and your life) can benefit.
Anxiety-rooted under-performance and over-performance share one big idea. (Actually, a lot of ideas, but some of them are a little too big to go into here, like “Am I worthwhile as a human being?” “Will I ever be good enough?” Yes, but if you don’t believe that, this blogpost isn’t going to be the thing to change your mind…) The one idea that we'll tackle here is the belief that mistakes are bad. This is … a mistake. Let’s look at this in more detail. If you break it down, the fear of making a mistake can show up in several different delusions, such as the following:
Let’s tackle this backwards. Look at your colleagues. Who are the best performers? The happiest and most enthusiastic workers? The most accomplished team members? Now think about how they handle mistakes. Do they flush with shame when they make a mistake? Do they hide their mistakes or avoid working to avoid making mistakes? Do they throw other people under the bus when they make a mistake? Okay, maybe some of them do that but those people aren’t the role models we’re looking for here. The people we’re looking for work hard, they make plenty mistakes, they own them and they move on. How do they do that?? They have a different understanding about mistakes. And not just their mistakes but other people’s mistakes, too. This is what we're going for, and these are some of the things we need to remember to get there:
Work = Mistakes
Mistakes are inevitable. Everyone makes mistakes and working hard is impossible without making mistakes. They go hand in hand, so anticipate it and be proactive about it.
Mistakes + Responsibility = Success
Reputations are not ruined by mistakes - they’re ruined by not taking responsibility for mistakes. And, contrary to what we may all think, people are mostly focusing on themselves, not on you.
Intelligence = Mistakes
The idea that intelligence means always being "right" is wrong. Intelligence means having an open mind, being willing to think and work hard and get things wrong sometimes. Mistakes can be hugely beneficial learning experiences, like for the guy who invented post-it notes by dripping goo on his shoe (or however that story goes). Or they can just be embarrassing (like for me when I forgot to take the lines meant to indicate “this is a ramp” off a construction drawing and they ended up being scored into the pavement.). But they’re part of life. And I'm still pretty smart despite that error, which is now, for all intents and purposes, etched in stone.
Intelligence = Questions
Asking questions is not a sign of weakness. Sometimes we have no idea what’s going on, but we think everyone else does, so we keep our mouths shut so we don't look stupid. If you really should know what's going on and are clueless due to your own negligence, then by all means, keeps your mouth shut and look like you’re thinking really hard. But if not, just ask. Chances are you’re not the only person with that question and the longer you wait to ask, the deeper the hole you're digging. Smart people readily admit their ignorance. Dumb people hide it.
Side note, the best time to ask questions is when you’re new - new to a job or new to a project. At that point, you’re not supposed to know anything anyway, so just go ahead and ask a ton of questions. And write down the answers. Writing things down - always a good move.
Those are my top four tips for handling mistakes at work. And by handling, I mean, “not avoiding.” Avoiding mistakes means avoiding getting anything done. Or, alternately, getting too much done - working, working, working, even doing other people’s work beyond perfection to avoid mistakes. Which brings me to one more point: other people’s mistakes.
Other People's Mistakes
How you handle other people’s mistakes is a good indication of how you feel about your own mistakes. When someone you work with makes a mistake (for example, maybe she checked presentation boards on her flight to Chicago for an important meeting with the Board of Trustees at a prominent University and the airline lost the boards and didn't find them in time for said meeting…ahem), what would you say to her?
Maybe you’re the kind of person (like a certain awesome Cathy I know) who would (did) say something like, “Oh &%$#, that must have totally sucked - I’m so sorry! I’ll bet you figured out a great way to handle it, though.” Or would you look at that person and say, “Sucks to be you!”?
No, you would not (at least I hope not if you’re reading this blog.) Ideally, we would say the same things to ourselves that we would say to others - kind, supportive things that encourage that person to move on - and remember to never check presentation boards again…
However, you may have enough social skills to know to say those things but at the same time be thinking something else, and that something else is what’s going to tell you how YOU feel about YOUR mistakes. Are you thinking inside, “Oh my god - how could she have let that happen?? She’s so careless. I would never, ever, ever have let that happen in a million years.” Followed quickly by an entry of “NEVER CHECK PRESENTATION BOARDS” on your “How to Be the BEST at Work” Excel spreadsheet. These people are so afraid of mistakes they can’t stop working to avoid them. These people try to control everything they can to avoid mistakes. And yes, they often do avoid them, but they work so hard they’re exhausted. They may look good, but they're operating out of fear.
Alternately, you may feel paralyzed and think, “That could have been me! Dang! She’s so busted. I’m going to try to remember that, but seriously, if it’s not that, something worse will happen.” These people believe they can’t control anything to do with mistakes, so they mentally pin-ball around their work, avoiding problems because they're scary. They usually end up with more problems on their plates because they want to pretend they don’t exist. Except that they actually do. They may ending up look bad, and they're also operating out of fear.
All of that because of mistakes! What if mistakes were not the end of the world? What if you could look at your tasks, anticipate problems, and get to work? What if you could just make mistakes and move on? I worked with architect once who’s boss always said, “That’s what errors and omissions insurance is for.” A little cavalier maybe, but pretty liberating. If you’re able to accept human error (your own and others’) then you’re better able to dive in and get the job done right the first time because you’re not afraid. That's why, if you have anxiety, rethinking your attitude about mistakes is probably one of the best things you can do to get past it.