Most mistakes are just plain stupid. “I wasn’t thinking,” we say. Stupid mistakes aren’t intentional, but the genie is out of the bottle. The damage is done.
Sure, we can try to minimize the damage by claiming “we’re only human” or “everybody makes mistakes.” But in the age of transparency, individuals and businesses alike can suffer serious consequences from the fallout of stupid mistakes.
Here are four ways to avoid making stupid, potentially harmful mistakes:
1) Face your limitations. The worst fate is becoming functionally obsolete. This applies to structurally sound bridges with lanes that are too narrow and vertical clearances that fail to meet current traffic demands, and it applies to individuals, departments, managers and organizations as well.
Most of us rely on our past performance as a guide, failing to recognize that it’s inadequate. When you no longer have the skills, capabilities and knowledge to handle today’s demands, you become functionally obsolete—and, unintentionally, often make inappropriate decisions.
2) Challenge yourself. Picture this: During a family discussion of current events, a father answers a question quickly and confidently. A few seconds later, his newly minted son-in-law speaks up politely with a different answer from his iPhone—shocking the older man, who thought he knew he was right.
This is what researchers call “the illusion of explanatory depth,” which means we think we know more than we do. It’s not only pervasive, it also causes us to draw erroneous conclusions. We’re often irritated by those who seem to question everything—they slow things down and create confusion. But before getting too critical, consider they may be doing you a favor by nudging you to ask a question that makes a difference: “How do I know what I think I know?”
Ignorance isn’t bliss—it’s a severe handicap.
3) Think it through. We all have our own ideas. Because they’re ours, we inevitably become overly invested in them. And that’s where we get off track—instead of solving problems, we persist in pursuing ill-conceived solutions.
In his book “How to Think,” Alan Jacobs says thinking is “not the decision itself but what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence. It’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be.”
In other words, thinking it through means considering the consequences.
4) Make it personal. Sales spiels, elevator speeches, presentations and other forms of messaging often cause unexpected problems. Even though their objective is to help us perform more effectively, they can end up doing just the opposite.
By putting so much energy into getting the words, tone, gestures and everything else right, we can get too wrapped up with what we want to get across. When this happens, we unintentionally build a barrier that separates us from our listeners, readers or customers.
Unless you make it personal, you open the door for a stupid mistake.
John Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales strategy consultant and business writer.