Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Atala Writes - Feeling Free to Make Mistakes or Fail in Relationships

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There are many cases in personal relationships where one party feels restricted from saying or doing what they feel like, because they are afraid that the other party will react negatively, justifiably or otherwise. In the end, what happens is that instead of there being a frank and open discussion about what will work and what won't, there's a breakdown in communication which can poison the relationship.

Or it could just be one person, and that person is scared of doing something - perhaps because they have never done that thing before and are afraid of making mistakes. Perhaps, they have just met a new person and there's a budding friendship, but they are paralysed about how to build it into something stronger and more permanent, afraid to communicate openly to that person.

Let me tell a little story. Many years ago, I and a friend got involved in the running of a Nigerian tech startup. It was a novel experience - going from a humdrum existence in a software firm in the UK to being in charge of all kinds of things, like sales, administration, product development, training, business strategy. It was especially challenging, because I was (and to some extent, still am) not a natural fit for quite a few of those roles, and I had never taken on these roles before. But in spite of the challenges, it was an experienced that really helped me to grow in many ways (as most challenging experiences do).

While in this role, one of the things that I noticed was that in many of the companies that we were seeking to have as customers, there was a high centralisation of authority. Before we could get a member of staff to do something, he had to seek approval from his oga. And chances were that his oga had to seek approval from his oga. In some cases, even the 'oga at the top' had to be involved in ultimately granting approval.

This struck me as very wasteful of any of the ogas' times. Wouldn't it have made more sense to delegate more authority to the staff, to make them feel that they had the freedom and autonomy to make decisions on behalf of the organisation? So one thing I tried to do with our startup's staff was to make them feel that they had that freedom and autonomy. And one crucial element of getting them to feel that way was to make them realise that it was OK to make mistakes in the discharge of their duty.

"What?" I hear you say. "How can you tell your staff that it's OK to make mistakes?" In a way, it does sound scary. What if a member of staff makes a big mistake and transfers ten million naira instead of ten thousand? Surely it's not OK to make a mistake then, is it? And my answer would be, no, it isn't. Which is why there is a pre-requisite for giving staff the freedom to make mistakes when they have to make a decision; and that is: ensuring that you have chosen smart, meticulous and dependable staff in the first place, and you have given them the tools, the information and equipped them the skills they need to make the decision.

And I've come to realize since being married for over four years now, that this doesn't just apply to work scenarios only. It is crucual in relationships that each partner feels free to make mistakes, free to fail sometimes. When I see these kinds of scenarios where I see a breakdown in communication, I always think, it doesn't have to be like this.

Again, it comes down to the pre-requisites. In the case of relationships, you have to choose the right person by being the right person, being honest and asking questions. As a couple, this thread has to continue. Each person has to, on their own, try to make the best judgments they can and have the best intentions possible, and communicate to the other that they trust/believe they will do the same.

After that, neither of them should be overly worried about the results of the actions of the other, and as a consequence they will feel freer to say/do what they want.

For the person about to embark on an unfamiliar task, be it entering a new relationship, or saying yes to a proposal, you have to prepare mentally, physically and/or emotionally for this thing you have probably never done, be a couple with this new person, only them will you stand a better chance of not failing.

But even with the best intentions/preparations, I can still fail at something. So what? The chances are that because of the aforementioned preparation/intentions, my failure will be unlikely to be a catastrophe. I can treat the failure as an experiment that didn't work out, and it can serve as an opportunity for me to expand my knowledge, and be a more informed, rounded person.

I can ask myself - What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? What wrong assumptions did I make? How could this have been prevented? What new things have I learned, and how can I apply them to other situations? If I view the failure in this light, the chances are that I'm even less likely to fail in future endeavours.

Of course, there's not a lot you can do if the person you have a work/personal relationship consistently continues to make mistakes, in spite of your giving them the freedom to fail. It could be that they are incapable of making good judgments, (in that case, really the only thing you can do is to bear with them if they have some other redeeming features),or they just don't care, and in that case, you have to move on.

So here's wishing you all freedom to do all the things that your hearts desire - even if it includes the odd mistep or two. Because life isn't about avoiding failure, but learning how to deal with it when it happens.


To all my fans who have been asking, I'm fine o. Leave a comment to say hello :)

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