Lessons learned from the circus: how to handle mistakes

As a hobbyist trapeze artist, I can attest the truth in jokes about managing proposals being like running a circus. Yes, it’s a juggling act with multiple performers dancing in and out of each other’s paths. But a circus performance and a proposal submission have deeper traits in common.

For instance, both activities are team efforts with defined roles and responsibilities. The teams comprise members with varied backgrounds. In proposal development, you may work with team members from different departments, of different ages, and with different levels of experience. In my trapeze classes, I also work in teams with varying levels of experience, different ages, and different abilities.

Another commonality is the pressure to succeed. There is a lot on the line in proposals and in a circus! In trapeze, we face the success or failure of a performance, but we also have each other’s lives in our hands. While you might not have your colleagues’ lives in your hands, there’s a lot on the line in proposal development too—the company profits, the possibility of a bonus, our very careers as well as those of our colleagues.

In the end, whether you’re in a circus performance or working on a proposal, you are performing in a discrete role on a diverse team with a lot on the line.

With these commonalities, there’s a lot you can learn from the circus community about handling mistakes, consistently succeeding, and building community.

Handling mistakes: what we experience

With so much on the line in proposals, the climate is tense and sometimes explosive when someone on the team makes a big mistake. I have seen people miss major compliance items and miss deadlines. Early in my career, I made a mistake with the pricer that potentially revealed proprietary pricing information to a major competitor! To the say the president of the company was upset is an understatement. I left his office ashamed, and while I never made that mistake (or one like it) again, my anxiety about all things proposal increased substantially.

Handling mistakes in the circus

In circus, mistakes are handled a little differently than what I experienced above.

First, success and failure are both recognized as a team effort. If a performer fails in her part of the performance, the blame isn’t immediately assigned to the performer. Everyone involved assesses their own performance to determine if they contributed to the performer’s failure. If there are any discrepancies, the head coach who observes the entire operation has the final say.

The most notable characteristic is that mistakes aren’t punished; they are discussed, understood, and improved upon. Everyone involved understands the high risks involved. In fact, making a mistake is unnerving because you realize how close you are to injury at any given moment. No one is going to add anger on top of fear. Instead, the group assesses the cause and does better next time.

Research on handling mistakes

This last point about not punishing mistakes is echoed by the Harvard Business Review (HRB). In an article titled “Why Compassion is a Better Managerial Tactic than Toughness,” the authors found that compassionate responses increase loyalty and trust.

When someone makes a professional mistake, they are vulnerable. If you work with good employees, they will feel awful for making the mistake. When a coworker or manager responds compassionately, the employee begins to trust his coworker and build loyalty with the company. However, angry responses cause the employee to disengage and decreases trust.

In fact, angry responses decrease creativity in the office. Creativity usually involves risk, and employees who fear angry responses to failure are less likely to try creative approaches to their work. Not only is anger counter-productive, it doesn’t contribute to a positive reputation. People who react to mistakes with anger are seen as powerful, but ineffective.

Changing how we respond to mistakes in proposals

If you aren’t already, I recommend conducting proposal reviews with a reviewer’s caucus and debriefing writers on the outcome. Most organizations default to gathering the reviewers and writers in a room and reviewing the comments, but this can be confusing and demoralizing for the writers—especially if the reviewers don’t agree.

Instead, take a cue from the circus. Designate a single point of authority, schedule a meeting with just the reviewers, and determine a consensus that the single point of authority will relay to the writers.

Second, stop perpetuating the idea that one role on the team is responsible for wins. The reality is that proposals are a team effort, so wins and losses are the result of a team effort.

One company I worked for posted the cover of every winning proposal on a wall, signed by the proposal manager. On the positive side, this practice was a way to congratulate each other’s successes. On the other hand, this approach made it seem like any win was the proposal manager’s win, when it was really a team win. This practice exemplifies some of our habits and ways of discussing proposals that contribute to the unfair idea that a win rests on one person’s shoulders.

My final recommendation is to accept responsibility for your mistakes instead of trying to hide them. Hiding mistakes usually stems from fear of judgment from your colleagues or your own internal judgment. Instead of hiding, show yourself some of the compassion the HBR article advocated. By acknowledging your mistakes up front, you’re contributing to a new culture in your workplace where mistakes happen and people move on.

Your takeaways

What other applications can you come up with for handling mistakes better?


Julia Quigley has worked on a variety of Federal Health IT task orders and large federal proposals. With a Master’s in Rhetoric and Composition, she has created proposal writing strategies and conducted training to help technical subject matter experts (SMEs) understand how to respond clearly and compellingly to solicitation requirements. Prior to joining Lohfeld Consulting Group, Julia managed proposals for small and mid-sized federal contractors and taught introductory writing and persuasive writing classes at Texas State University. She applies the lessons she taught as well as lessons learned to all her writing and training projects.

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Lohfeld Consulting