MB: When I make a mistake, I like to seal it into the depths of my own private shame vault. The perfectionist voice in my head tells me that if I pretend it didn’t happen, no one else will notice. Author Tema Okun names perfectionism as a core characteristic of white supremacy culture. I’ve been steeped in this culture my whole life, one that equates mistakes with “badness” and first-try competence with “goodness.” It leaves little room for growth, creativity, or accountability.
DD: It was a challenging project and going well, our newest team members were knocking it out of the park on a regular basis. As a Monday deadline approached, the final edits and formatting seemed to be in hand. I felt calm and assured that each would send their contributions in time to deliver to the client as promised.
As we inched closer to the due date, the work had yet to be delivered. I was puzzled because it was unlike my previous experiences with this team. I sent a message, and they responded that they were working on it. Okay, a little last minute, but it would be fine.
MB: A few days of rough COVID-19 vaccine side effects for me (get your vaccines anyway!) mixed with a coworker’s religious holiday and a sprinkle of poor communication made for a frantic Monday morning putting final edits on the project. As the clock ticked past the deadline and the pings from the project lead became more and more urgent, I assured her that we were nearly done.
DD: I wondered what was up. They each missed the deadline, which was unusual for both. What about this assignment was different? I started pondering my request. Thinking back, I remembered feeling like the last bit was easy, perhaps I had been too casual? Something to check-in on later.
The work arrived, only slightly late and it was stellar. I sent it along to the client and they were thrilled with the result. I was relieved, phew!
MB: Meanwhile, my perfectionist voice was chastising me: “40 minutes late! On your first project in a new and coveted job! You’re disappointing people, making a bad first impression!” I was hoping to myself we’d all pretend this didn’t happen and I would lock this hiccup away in the shame vault forever.
DD: And yet… While everything turned out well, I was stressed, and I knew they were too – not the experience we want for two fabulous new employees. As important as the assignment was, our relationship and connection were even more important. We have a lot more projects in our future and I want them to be fun, successful and free of stress – at least from each other. I wanted to learn what was up so we could do better next time, so we set up a time to talk.
MB: When an email landed in my inbox, my heart started to beat faster. I immediately assumed that “I’m in trouble.” But the words I read from the project lead surprised me. She thanked us, took responsibility for scheduling things tightly and shared that she wanted to learn what she can do differently for next time.
Unfortunately, her words didn’t sink in. I was carrying all my previous work experiences into this new job. I’ve seen emails that look like this before, lulling me into a false sense of trust before the office door closes. My heart sank. Can I be successful here? Will I ever regain Dianne’s trust?
And then… The meeting turns out to be what Dianne said it would be. She asks us to go around in a circle and share our experiences. She listens, without interrupting. She seems to believe us. We take another round to share what we could have done differently, what we learned from this experience, and how we can communicate better. I felt my body relax. Rather than eroding trust, Dianne has built trust with me. I’ve learned about better communication and planning. More importantly, I’ve come to trust that her words and actions will be aligned; That she sees me as a human being, not just a work robot, and that future collaboration is possible.
DD: When we met, I learned that vaccine after-effects and a religious holiday that I hadn’t accounted for were part of the problem. The bigger part of the problem (from my perspective) was my assumptive communication about what needed to be done. I’d sent an email when a brief call would have revealed more about how they were doing. It would have allowed me to share more clearly what was needed, and by when and would have provided an easier opportunity for them to renegotiate. I realized that “deadline” is such an ingrained piece of white supremacy culture that sounds so important but is loaded. In my 30’s, I would have done almost anything to deliver a deadline – as if it were life and death – to the point that I caused myself and others harm and stress. In my 60’s, I prefer a more human-first approach and can see that what we call a deadline is really a promise, and promises can usually be renegotiated. In retrospect, I might have rescinded my request for part of the work and done some of it myself given all that was going on. I felt I had been lazy in my communication, and it cost us.
Luckily, the team was gracious and forgiving and we all saw things we could have done differently and that we will do differently in the future. In a way, the issue gave us the opportunity to better define and explore how we want to work together next time, and that would have been missed if everything had gone according to plan. The most important thing for me is being able to lay a foundation for our future together. These are bright, accomplished, and delightful women, and I want to work with them well and often!
MB: Perfectionism has been one of the hardest characteristics of white supremacy culture for me to unlearn. Getting to experience a different way of dealing with mistakes at work gives me hope that I’ll internalize this and treat others with the same empathy and grace as I received.
And next time I make a mistake, I guess the best thing to do is to write a blog post about it.