mistakeLast month I went with a friend to see the famed Holocaust Memorial Center located in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  It’s one of the finest museums of its kind in the country and, like many people, I hadn’t seen one of the greatest things in my own backyard.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning; the sun was shining in a clear blue sky.  I left my house right on time, confirmed with my companion about pickup location and we were off.  As we drove up Orchard Lake Road, nearing our destination, we could see the huge museum, striking in its external appearance – a combination of brick and metal, stretching up to the sky with large glass windows and surrounded by a large, convenient and *empty* parking lot.


By now, some of you may know exactly why the parking lot was empty.  I, coming from a traditional Catholic upbringing, my friend from a Baptist one, both of us living in a Christian-mainstreamed world never gave it a thought.  Until we arrived at the empty parking lot.

And then it clicked.

Judaism observes the Shabbat on Saturday, Christianity observes the Sabbath on Sunday.  This was a Jewish museum.

Diversity fail.

Here we were, out to expand our own cultural horizons and historic knowledge, stopped by our own lack thereof.  It was the ultimate irony.  I share all this because I’m also a diversity and inclusion consultant, even more ironic!  But I share it with purpose.

We all have “diversity fails” at one time or another.  No one is perfect and everyone makes errors out of a lack of awareness – whether it’s Chevy making a “Nova” and trying to sell it in Spanish-speaking countries where “no va” means “it doesn’t go” or it’s hosting a major fundraising event on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

We all make mistakes, and it’s not necessarily about fault.  Granted, I’m not talking about mistakes that involve lying, cheating, misrepresenting facts, or name-calling.  This isn’t about Paula Deen using the N-word or Rachel Dolezal lying about her heritage.  I’m talking about honest, well-intentioned mistakes.  Truth is, we all make them.  You are, along with everyone else, the result of your cumulative life experience.  There will be times when it’s not likely you could have predicted the mistake in advance, given your life experience and your exposure to various cultures and people.

Owning the mistake, learning from it, and making adjustments as you move forward is the key. 

more people would learnGiving yourself permission to make mistakes is essential.  Unfortunately, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, many people are so afraid of making mistakes, of being judged for making them, that they don’t even engage.   Fear of messing up prevents people from sticking their hand in the fire, afraid of getting burned.  It prevents learning.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog called “The R Word.”  It described how many white people are so afraid of being called a racist that they stay out of conversations about race altogether.   Being called a racist evokes shame, embarrassment, and often defensiveness for white people.  Many take a step back, retreat, avoid the conversation in the future. The shame-and-blame strategies of past workforce diversity trainings have left many white people, especially white men, shut down, defensive or avoidant.

But… we’re in this together.  Research has shown that one of the best ways for people to learn when it comes to diversity and inclusion is through dialogue and reflection.  Talking, thinking and practice leads to learning.   Dialoguing across difference supports that process.  If there’s no dialogue out of fear of failure, there’s no learning.  White people especially – be courageous and step into the conversation – lean in.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes, to say, “Oops, I made a mistake.”  Or maybe, “I should have known that, why didn’t I?”

At the Michigan Nonprofit Associations daylong institute on diversity, inclusion and equity in June, I heard Dianna Langenburg from the W.K.Kellogg Foundation say,

“We treat mistakes as gifts, as precious opportunities to learn.”

Several of the morning panelists echoed that same sentiment, talking about how their best insights had come from the times they had made mistakes.

Imagine the creativity, the open-mindedness, if all organizations fostered a learning culture that valued the process of learning and valued the sharing of mistakes made.   Fruitful diversity and inclusion conversations require a safe, trusting space.  That means setting the tone, leading by example, and opening up a discussion which encourages people to talk about their mistakes in order to learn and grow from them.

How do you set a trusting environment where people feel comfortable airing their mistakes?   Does your organization view making mistakes as “precious opportunities to learn?”