Try, fail, learn, grow: Why acknowledging mistakes is key to business success

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten Group

In a global company, individuals from different cultures come together to pursue a common business goal. When we connect across cultures, we can leverage each other’s strengths, knowledge and history to achieve new heights. But not all cultural interchange goes smoothly: Sometimes, individuals from different cultures can hold different views, and when those differences meet in the workplace, they can raise barriers or seed misunderstandings. We have sometimes faced one such hurdle at Rakuten, over the word “sorry.”

Say sorry to acknowledge a mistake… and find an opportunity for growth

In Japanese culture, apologizing is a commonly practiced courtesy. When you make a mistake or inconvenience others, even momentarily, people generally apologize. By saying “sorry,” we can acknowledge a misstep, a mistake or even just an intrusion on someone else’s space. We can acknowledge that things could be better. We can give a name to our impact on that someone.

In my latest book, Business-Do, I discuss the importance of not rationalizing your behavior. This is connected to the concept of apologizing. Instead of looking for ways to cast a situation in a way that makes you look better, I argue that you’re better off to identify it as a mistake with an apology. By doing so, you have the chance to recognize it as an opportunity for growth.

“Acknowledging mistakes is necessary to achieving success.”

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten Group

While this is not an uncommon practice in Japan, we are a global company and not everyone comes to Rakuten with the same thinking around apologizing. I’ve encountered many cases in which non-Japanese employees express confusion or even opposition to this practice of abundant apologies. We should not admit fault, they argue. We should avoid making ourselves look weak. In some cultures, a person quick to apologize might be viewed as uncertain or lacking in confidence.

I believe that both these views of the word sorry have merit, and the best practice is a melding of the two.

No one can have a perfect batting average

Acknowledging mistakes is necessary to achieving success. It never feels good to admit a mistake, but everyone makes them. No one can have a perfect batting average. The presence of a mistake is an indication that the individual tried and failed. And trying and failing is part of the innovation process. If we are not failing often, we are probably not taking enough chances.

“If we are not failing often, we are probably not taking enough chances.”

Years ago, when I attempted to acquire Tokyo Broadcasting System Inc., the takeover failed. It cost me time and money, and in the end, I apologized to our stakeholders for failing to appreciate the challenges of acquiring a company like TBS.

It was not enjoyable to acknowledge my mistake, but I know now that by facing my misstep then, I was better prepared to pursue and succeed at new partnerships, such as the one we recently forged with Japan Post. Together with Japan Post, we’re aiming to transform the nation’s logistics industry and more. Who knows if this would have been possible without the lessons I learned from past mistakes?

The watchword of the innovator

Of course, there is some truth in the alternate view of apologies – that they can signal a lack of confidence when that’s neither useful nor necessary. Since we decided to make English Rakuten’s official corporate language, I have had more than one person apologize in meetings for mistakes in English usage. To that, I would always say there is no need to apologize. There will always be different levels of language proficiency within the organization and perfect English is not the endgame.

“In its own way, the apology is good news. It is the sound of us all trying and failing and learning and growing.”

Saying sorry all the time isn’t useful. Would you expect a professional athlete to apologize for each missed shot? Of course not. You simply expect that they will try again. At the same time, if you observe a colleague who never utters the word “sorry”, you may well wonder whether that individual is executing at the highest level, or just playing it safe. At the end of the day, it’s a delicate balance.

When I hear an apology, I am not dismayed. In fact, in its own way, the apology is good news. It is the sound of us all trying and failing and learning and growing. It is the foundation of what will eventually be our next good idea, our next successful effort, breakthroughs we could never have achieved if we did not fail first.

And therefore: Sorry can be the watchword of the innovator. It is the language of our continuous effort. It does not mean we lack confidence or are ready to give up. It simply means we are not finished.

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