Trial by Error: Failure as a Powerful If Painful Teacher

How do we learn to do something right? Very often it is through trial by fire. We learn from our mistakes. And when we start a job, we often do make mistakes. It is not a great experience. In fact it can be pretty upsetting.

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I graduated from Temple Law School and started working as an Assistant State’s Attorney in the juvenile court system in Philadelphia in the late 1970s. The first day I came to work, nervous about what was going to happen, Harry Tischler, the division chief, welcomed me and then handed me a stack of about twenty files.

“The assistant who was going to try these cases today is out sick. Go down to Judge Brown’s courtroom and try these cases.”

Just because I had graduated from law school didn’t mean I had ever tried a case. I had not. And I had no idea what to do, no time to prepare the cases, and no time to talk with the witnesses. Nothing! When I said that I could use some ideas about how to try a case since I had never done it before, the chief said, “Ask the cops. They know what to do.” I almost bolted from the building, but instead I walked down to Judge Brown’s courtroom on the first floor, opened the door, and went in.

The courtroom was buzzing with activity. There were two court clerks behind the front bar of the court and a court stenographer. There were policemen in the waiting area who wanted to talk with me about the cases in which they were supposed to be testifying. There were defense attorneys, who once they figured out I was the prosecutor, wanted to talk about plea deals. There were witnesses were sitting on the benches outside the courtroom who wanted to know when their cases would be heard. I developed a giant headache.

Most of the cases had to be continued because a witness was missing, which was a relief. The court clerk set a new date and everyone involved in that case left the court. But there was one matter that was set for trial that day and all of the witnesses were there. The judge banged her gavel and declared that there would be a fifteen minute recess before the trial would begin.

“Are you ready, Counsel?” she demanded, peering down at me over her reading glasses from behind the elevated podium where she sat.

Gamely, I answered “Yes, Your Honor!”

That was a big fat lie. I wasn’t ready and I had no clue how to get ready in fifteen minutes to try the first criminal case I had ever tried in my life. I cornered the police officer who was going to testify in the case and tried to pick his brains.

“Look,” I said, “This is my first day on the job. Can you tell me what I need to do to try this case?”

He did his best to give me pointers. And then the judge was back and the gavel banged. Court was in session.

I did my best to put in the evidence. It was a case involving a high school teacher and a student. The teacher kept the student after school because he had been disrupting the classroom. She had him stay in her classroom in detention while she was writing on the blackboard. As she was writing, she was hit with a chair that was thrown at her by the student. She fell to the ground with a gash in the back of her head. She had to be rushed to the hospital. Her recovery took months.

This seemed like a straightforward assault and battery case, so I did what anyone would do who had watched TV shows about law and order. I called the teacher as my first witness, and I asked her questions. When I asked a leading question, the public defender objected and the judge instructed me to ask a different question. She even tried to suggest a question or two when I got stuck. I learned not to ask leading questions.

Things were going along pretty darn well until it came time to establish that the young man at the bar of the court was actually the person who had thrown the chair.

“Do you see the person who threw the chair at you here in court today?” I asked the teacher.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“You don’t know? What do you mean you don’t know?” I said.

“I don’t know. I had my back turned to the classroom while I was writing on the blackboard. All I know is that I blacked out and woke up in the hospital with a gash in my head.”

It was at that awful moment I learned it’s good to have corroborating evidence in a circumstantial case if you have an uncertain ID of the defendant. Too late. I did not have that corroborating evidence.

“How did you know you had been hit in the head with a chair?” I asked her.

“Because that’s what people told me at the hospital,” she said.

Of course that caused the public defender to jump to his feet yelling, “Objection! Hearsay!”

Which it was.

I will never forget the judge hissing at me, “Go to sidebar, counsel!” She was enraged. “You call yourself a lawyer? Where is your supervisor? I want a real lawyer in my courtroom! This is an important case and you do not know how to do a trial!” Of course she had a point there. I was mortified.

Harry Tishler was summoned by the judge. He came down to the courtroom and reviewed the file for a minute or two. We had a few moments together to talk. He explained how to manage the situation, and even though I offered to have him take over the trial, he refused. “You’ll do fine,” he said. “Just build the circumstantial evidence. Establish that there was no one else in the room other than the student at the time of the incident and that the chair was not fixed to the floor. Establish that this person at the bar of the court was her student and that he was the student she kept after school that day. Establish through the testimony of the police officer that when he arrived, he found her on the floor of the classroom with a gash in her head and found that the chair next to her had blood on it.” I did what he instructed. Harry stuck around until the trial was over and the judge ruled that based on the evidence, the defendant was guilty of a battery.

That day I learned a lot and I learned it the hard way.

When I do work histories now with the many clients I have seen over the years, I am surprised about how many people start out in a job and get thrown into a situation without the chance to learn what to do and what not to do. Of course they make mistakes. Many people have had the experience of trial by error. Those lessons probably stay with us the longest. Failure is a great teacher. I am not saying that is the best way to learn how to do a job, but it is a fairly common experience.

If you are having that experience right now at your job, just remember that you will get through it, and you have a lot of company!

How to Prevent Unconscious Bias from Derailing Your Career

I’d like to share a guest blog post with you today by Andie Kramer on a very important topic: women and the unconscious bias they face in the workplace, and what they can do about it. It is based on the new book Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris.


breaking through biasA major career move—advancing to a new position in your current organization, moving to a new one, or restarting your career after a break—can be difficult in the best of circumstances. But when the people controlling your ability to make such a move, that is your career gatekeepers, are biased against you, a major move can become impossible. Biases are of various sorts. Conscious biases—outspoken misogyny, racism, or anti-Semitism—are rare in today’s business environment. Unconscious or implicit biases, however, are anything but rare.

All of us on occasion use stereotypes in deciding what sort of person will be best at particular sorts of tasks. We might, for example, simply because of the stereotypes we have about particular sorts of people hire a man rather than a woman, promote a white person rather than a black person, or give a plum assignment to a young person rather than an older one. In doing so, we probably would not even be aware we were making biased, discriminatory decisions, or realize those decisions were directly contrary to our conscious, declared beliefs.

In what follows, we explain how stereotypes foster unconscious biases and how these biases limit career opportunities; we then offer some practical, effective techniques you can use to avoid or overcome the implicit biases you face in your career.

Stereotypes Foster Biases

We form stereotypes at a very young age. We ascribe to people who share a single characteristic—such as sex, race, ethnicity, or age—a host of other characteristics that can be positive—all Asians are good at math—or negative— all women are bad at math. But in either case, stereotypes are problematic because they strip a person of uniqueness. They ascribe characteristics to a person not because of actual behavior, accomplishments, and potential, but because of a social construct, an in-group/out-group prejudice, or a lazy way of deciding what a person is like. Stereotypes distort reality and create biases.

Stereotypes about Women

We commonly think that a woman—simply because she is a woman—is (and ought to be) warm, pleasant, caring, gentle, modest, sensitive, and affectionate (characteristics frequently called communal). On the other hand, we commonly think a man—simply because he is a man—is (and ought to be) strong, forceful, aggressive, competent, competitive, and independent (characteristics frequently called agentic).

A career gatekeeper who sees the world through these gender stereotypes will make decisions based on an unconscious expectation (at least at an initial meeting) that a woman will not be as forceful, competent, suited for challenging assignments, or capable of high-pressure, competitive leadership tasks as a comparably qualified man. Thus, traditional gender stereotypes foster a negative bias: a woman, simply because she is a woman, is not as capable of successful leadership as a man.

On the other hand, if a woman openly violates the traditional gender stereotypes by displaying agentic characteristics associated with (male) leadership, she is likely to be seen by her career gatekeepers as difficult, selfish, devious, and unlikable. By flaunting traditional gender stereotypes, a woman is subject to what we call an agentic bias.

Because women face a negative bias if they conform to traditional gender stereotypes and an agentic bias if they violate them, women often feel they are in a no-win situation, unable to advance regardless of what they do. As a result, they can become frustrated with their careers, cynical about their advancement opportunities, and unwilling to continue to make the effort needed to get ahead.

The pervasive nature of such frustration is well illustrated by a recent survey by Bain and Company. Bain found that when women start their careers at large organizations, they are just as ambitious as men. But after about two years, the percentage of women aiming for a top position has dropped by about 60%, while the percentage of men with similarly high ambitions has remained the same. Contrary to conventional wisdom, marital status and parental responsibilities are not significant predictors of whether a woman will aspire to a top management position. Most discouraging, 70% of female middle managers and 75% of female senior managers believe women do not have an opportunity to advance in their organizations on terms comparable to men.

The Bain survey makes clear that after being in the workplace for several years, something happens that saps women’s ambition and undermines their belief in their ability to achieve meaningful career success. That something, in our view, is unquestionably gender bias. Women’s ideas are disregarded, they are excluded from networking and skill-building opportunities, and they experience discriminatory decisions about who is assigned to important projects, who receives valuable sponsorship, who gets listened to, and who is promoted.

Before we discuss what women can do to avoid or overcome this sort of gender discrimination, we want to look briefly at how gender stereotypes can also negatively affect men’s careers.

Stereotypes about Men

When men refuse to conform to traditional male stereotypes they too face gender bias. A man will inevitably be criticized about his lack of commitment to his career if he assumes primary responsibility for his children, demands a flexible work schedule, or refuses to accept assignments that take him away from his family. Thus, a man who, for whatever reason, rejects the demand for constant “face time” and refuses to be available 24/7 faces negative career and social costs because of the gender bias against “unmanly men.”

Changing the World

Obviously, our workplaces should be more gender neutral. Women who want robust careers should be supported, not attacked, and men who want to assume more domestic responsibilities should be respected, not depreciated. But achievement of such a blessed state of affairs will require enormous changes in workplace culture and social attitudes—changes we do not expect to see any time soon. This means that the real question is not whether our workplaces should change—of course, they should—but what women and men can do now to avoid or overcome pervasive discriminatory gender biases.

Women and Gender Bias

Women often suffer career penalties if their career gatekeepers see them as communal—thus not capable of leadership—or as agentic—thus unpleasant and unlikable. We call this double bind the Goldilocks Dilemma: a woman is “too soft” if she is seen as communal and “too hard” if she is seen as agentic. The trick for a woman, therefore, is to be seen as “just right,” and this depends on her ability to combine both agentic and communal behaviors in the right proportions at the right times. We call such purposeful mixing of “hard” and “soft” behaviors “attuned gender communication.”

A recent study tracked a group of female and male MBA graduates over the first eight years of their careers. It illustrates the effectiveness of attuned gender communication. Those women who were purposefully able to dial up or dial down their communal and agentic characteristics as they thought necessary were more successful than everyone else. They received 1.5 times as many promotions as agentic men, 1.5 times as many promotions as communal women, 2 times as many promotions as communal men, and 3 times as many promotions as agentic women. By using attuned gender communication, women can finesse rather than reinforce other people’s gender stereotypes to avoid gender bias.

For a successful career, a woman must be able to present her ideas forcefully, lead with decisiveness, and stand her ground when criticized. But unless she can mix this sort of agentic behavior with communal characteristics that convey her openness to other people’s ideas, her inclusiveness and relatability, and her social sensitivity, she is likely to be penalized, not rewarded. A woman should never be hesitant to speak up, assert her point of view, or take charge, but when she does, she needs to project personal engagement with her audience, a genuine concern for the welfare of her organization and the people in it, and a keen sense of fair play. In other words, unlike a comparably situated man, a woman needs to pair behavior that shows her competence, confidence, and a competitive appetite with behavior that projects warmth, inclusiveness, and likability.

Men and Gender Bias

A man who wants to play a meaningful role in the life of his family must decide if he also wants a demanding career. If he doesn’t, then the consequences of the bias against “unmanly men” are essentially irrelevant. But if he wants a robust career, he must find a way to overcome this bias, and this will require him to do at least two things.

First, he must take concrete steps that will allow him to have a full domestic life while pursuing career advancement. He will need to negotiate firm arrival and departure times, a flexible work schedule, or an opportunity to work from home. Such arrangements can be difficult, but not impossible, to obtain. And they are likely to come with costs: less rapid advancement opportunities, lower financial rewards, and fewer challenging projects than he might otherwise be qualified for. But if he truly owns his choice to equally value career and family, he will be able to live with the consequences if that choice with grace and good humor.

Second, consistent with the demands of his domestic responsibilities, he must maximize the visibility of his career commitment. This means he must devote much of his time when he is not with his family to his career. In other words, if it is not a family matter, he should be involved with his career, and if it is not a career matter, he should be involved with his family. To do this, he will need to forego many other aspirations—an active social life, non-business travel, training for a marathon, civic engagement, university extension courses, a book project, and much else. To achieve career success and real domestic engagement, a man must make clear that he is fully committed to both. Women with children and careers have been doing this for quite some time, and if a woman can do it, a man ought to be able to do so too.

Other Biases

Our discussion has focused for the most part on gender bias. But other implicit biases—race, ethnicity, age, religion, education, ancestry, or whatever—can also derail a career. The techniques that are most effective in avoiding or overcoming these biases may vary slightly, but they should all be approached in basically the same way: become aware of the stereotypes that are driving the bias, identify your behaviors that play into and obviate the consequences of this bias, and learn to manage the impressions you make so you confound or overcome these stereotypes rather than feed them.

The Power of One Small Word

There is a little word that goes a long way. Do you know what it is?

When people say this word, it creates a better workplace right away. When people use this word, they get others to want to help them more and to appreciate them more. What is this magic word? It is “thanks.”

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In many workplaces it is easy to forget to say “thanks.” People are busy and we expect that everyone in a workplace should just do the work they are paid to do. We expect that when we ask another person to do something, it is like an extension of ourselves: “Get this back to me by 3;” “Check this for typos;” “Call him right away.” We don’t say thanks to ourselves, so why should we thank our co-workers who are simply doing their jobs? The expectation is that you do the work. Just get it done.

But people do better when they get support. When people in a workplace take the time to say “thanks” to each other and appreciate the efforts of others, it creates a collaborative and supportive culture.

When I worked as an Assistant US Attorney in Chicago in the 1980s, I had an experience that underscored this idea. After a relatively short trial I had prepared and presented to the jury, the jury came back remarkably fast with the verdict we were seeking. It was a victory. The trial was over! We won. But I felt I hardly had time to celebrate, because I had so many other cases that needed attention, all of which were put on hold while I was working on this trial. I got back to my office dreading the thought of all that backlogged work.

When I sat down I was surprised to see a handwritten note on top of the files littering my desktop. The note was from Dan Webb, who was the US Attorney at the time. “I heard your jury came back in an hour and a half. Good job!” After that, I felt energized and ready to work all hours of the day or night prepping my cases. Recognition goes a long way. “Thank you” goes a long way.

There is a power in being truly and authentically thankful for the work that others do. We all rely on each other to get the work of the day accomplished. When we thank each other, express appreciation and are grateful, we empower our workplace and create more energy and productivity. What goes around comes around. Everyone benefits.

Five Steps to Less Stress

I work with many people who are stressed out. They work too hard and lack control over their work hours. They have bosses, partners, clients, or managers who insist that they respond right away. They are not able to spend time with their friends and families, even on weekends.

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Many of these stressed out people have been trying to find relief in ways that damage them. Some are using pills and drugs and some drink too much. They are uncertain about why they are so stressed out. Is it their fault, or is it the workplace? Could they do something to relieve the stress, or is it built into the workplace culture?

The answer is often both: many workplaces are unreasonably demanding, but the overstressed worker is often a “responsibility sponge.”

Many large law firms, for example, pay associates a lot of money, but in return they expect to get extraordinary productivity. The stress is baked in the cake when turn-around times are supposed to be lightning fast. It might not really be necessary to have such rapid response, but many partners are afraid that they will lose clients if they do not function as a rapid response team.

Many stressed out workers are highly responsible people. When I call them “responsibility sponges” they laugh and nod in agreement. They want to do the best work they can, which often requires more time than they are supposed to put into a project. They cannot just do “good enough” work. They need to do A+ work. They often have trouble delegating work because they believe only they can do the best job. And although clients don’t want to pay for perfection, they expect perfection, which adds to the culture of pervasive stress. Over-stressed workers trying to deliver perfection push themselves to the highest level of accomplishment even if it means losing out on much-needed time for friends, family, and personal rebooting.

What can you do about this problem if you are one of the stressed out people caught between a rock and a hard place? Here are five steps to get out of your state of perpetual stress.

Step One

First, go outside on a clear night and look at the sky. You heard me. Go outside and look at the stars. The universe is vast. Our world is a speck in the corner of the universe. Our lives are brief in the history of the world. Put your life in perspective. Whether the client gets his answer immediately or after the weekend really doesn’t matter as much as you or the client might think. In the scheme of things, this crazy stuff at work is small potatoes. What is going on at work is very Alice In Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass. Everyone at work may have bought into the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, but that doesn’t mean it is sane. Your work place culture is nuts. Keep remembering that and when you forget, go outside on a clear night and look at the sky.

Step Two

Play “fix this job.” Think about your work situation and pretend you are the king of everything. If you are the king of everything and could make your job over to be the kind of place that would not stress you out, what would that look like? Would you have a four day work week? Would you be able to work from home? Would you have a different boss? Write it down.

Step Three

Next, think about whether you have any leverage at work. Are you essential to your partner or boss, and in what way are you valuable or irreplaceable for your workplace? Can you use your leverage to make some alterations in your work world so that it gets closer to the work situation you could live with? Realistically, how could you restructure your work to get it closer to the job you want? Would you need to hand off certain work projects or certain matters to someone else to handle on a routine basis? Do you need take the time to train someone so that you trust them to do the work you delegate to them? Do you need to have a talk with your partner or boss about what you will and will not do over the weekend or at ten at night? Of course you have to use good judgement when you think about these options. If you do not have good leverage, then a frank talk about your unwillingness to work after normal business hours might mean you would lose your job. You want to be careful about your strategy. If you have a mentor at work or someone you trust in your field who is more senior, talk with him or her to get ideas and suggestions. I work with many clients who need to make this sort of judgement call and figure out a strategy about how to accomplish a restructured work setting that will help them be less stressed. We practice how to have that difficult conversation with the boss, which brings us to step four.

Step Four

Prepare for a difficult conversation with your manager, boss, or partner. You want to think through what you are going to say and how to say it. Never go into a meeting where you are requesting a restructuring of your work group or work flow without a plan that reassures your boss or manager that you will still be available to do the work that he or she needs done in a reasonably timely manner. If you need an altered schedule, explain why, and explain the benefits of a new schedule not just for you but for the workplace. Co-workers and bosses need to know you will still be there for them. Don’t expect to change the entire culture of a high-stress workplace, but do try to alter what you can to relieve your own stress to the extent possible.

Step Five

Sometimes you need to do more. You might need to get outside help from a counselor or therapist. If so, don’t be ashamed to get that help. If, for example, you are able to alter your workplace so that you are accommodated and there is less pressure on you but you still feel anxious and stressed out, that might be a sign that you could use more help. Sometimes the right answer is that you need to leave the workplace and find a calmer, more relaxed place to work. We all know there are Type A people and Type B people. But there are also Type A and Type B workplaces. You might need to find that Type B workplace to get the life you want and need to have. These places do exist. To find them, use friends, family, and LinkedIn to locate people who used to work there or work there now. Talk with these people about the culture of the workplace you are about to join to be sure the workplace is not the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Stress is damaging the lives of many workers. During the recent recession, workplaces cut back on staff and demanded more from those people who remained. Anyone with a job felt fortunate to have that job and worked very hard to stay employed. Productivity rose. But often along with high productivity comes stress because too few people are doing too much work. As the economy continues its recovery, workers can and should ask that their companies and firms hire more people so that good workers do not burn out. It does the company no good to spend the money finding and training good people only to have them leave because they are too stressed out and overworked.

A Teachable Moment c/o Donald Trump: How to Really Succeed in Life and Work

Donald TrumpI was at O’Hare Airport hurrying along a crowded corridor on my way to gate B 5 when I heard a mom say to her little boy, who was having a sit-down-on-his-butt screaming tantrum, “This is not the way we behave.” That moment, that teachable moment, made me think about Donald Trump and how he behaves, because maybe this is a teachable moment for all of us in America.

We have seen how Donald Trump has risen in the Republican Party with an angry, divisive message. And although he has tapped into a very powerful vein of legitimate unhappiness, the raw way he expresses himself has been shocking and deeply disturbing to many people. “Lock her up!” “Get him outta here!” “I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard… I was gonna hit this guy so hard his head would spin and he wouldn’t know what the hell happened.”

This may be the unvarnished, authentic way some people talk to each other, but the crudeness and the meanness of it causes even formerly ardent Republican “soccer mom” friends of mine to turn off their TV sets whenever their children are in the room and Trump is on the screen.

In the business world, it is generally accepted that a positive, respectful culture in a workplace is crucial for success. The leader, the boss, the manager sets the tone. Where there is a positive culture there can be a healthy flow of ideas and the company does better. The way people treat each other, including encouraging engagement, inviting different perspectives, learning from people with diverse backgrounds, and at the very least, treating everyone with respect, is important for a successful workplace.

As an executive coach, I work with people who are not playing well with others. They are sent to work with me by their law firms, by banks, or other companies, or they are self-referred because they want to be successful in their careers. We work together to improve their skills as leaders and managers. We work on emotional intelligence and strategies for creating productive, collegial work groups. We talk about how to lead by example so that the work group can be more productive.

In stark contrast, these are just some of the ways Donald Trump treats people: he demeans a gold star family, he makes fun of a disabled reporter, and he encourages violence if he cannot get his way. All of this runs counter to the way of behaving in the work world we teach our kids so that they will be successful in life. You shouldn’t expect to get what you want in life by having a sit-down-on-your-butt temper tantrum, by demeaning other people, by belittling, taunting, bullshitting or bullying.

Donald Trump would have been fired from any job he might have had if he acted the way he does on the campaign trail. The only reason he has not been fired is because he is the boss of his own enterprises. Anyone else acting this way would have been out of a job long ago.

Americans, even people who used to be excited about Trump’s candidacy, are turning away from him. He is losing market share and damaging his brand. And it’s not just his gaffes or policies that are changing people’s minds. It’s the way he behaves. It’s what he says and how he says it.

We tell our kids to treat others with respect. We tell them to do their homework and pay attention to the facts. We insist that they talk to us and others in a civil way. We do this so that they will be successful in life and at work.

Trump’s campaign does not currently look like a successful venture. As of now, he is not going to win this election. It is reassuring to know that the values and lessons we work hard to instill in our children are good ones for everyone, including grown up politicians.

photo credit: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore (license)