In life, and therefore in business, mistakes and unexpected events inevitably occur. How we respond to them as individuals defines who we are. How an organization deals with them determines its culture, for better or for worse. Blaming or finger-pointing leads to distrust, disengagement, resentment and unproductive behaviors. Because employees feel a loss of connection with the workplace when their sincere intentions and contributions are not valued.
Some mistakes are preventable but many are unavoidable – they’re part of the process of mastering more arduous tasks in pursuit of continuous improvement and are especially a consequence of risking and trying new things. All learning is error driven. As we often say, stuff happens. Responding to those negative outcomes without blaming fosters an environment of learning and growth in which employees can recognize and understand that conscientious effort and thoughtful actions, despite the consequences, are encouraged. And that failure is accepted by their supervisors as part of the process of getting better. Gains are rarely achieved without costs.
In a learning culture, high-performance managers point the way, not the finger. They look at their own behaviour before they unload blame on others. They focus more on understanding why something happened and less on who was the dummy that caused it. Because most failures are systems or process errors and, for that, ultimately it’s the manager’s responsibility. By identifying the root causes of under-performance, they engineer and build the practices and procedures aimed at preventing it in the future.
By recognizing that the fundamental principle of learning is progress not perfection – making incremental gains rather than attempting quantum leaps – they take responsibility for addressing the causes of failure and designing the appropriate fixes. This encourages individual and team transparency around why the mistakes happened rather than having them hidden or buried in fear of retribution.
By acknowledging the inevitability of unavoidable mishaps, managers can encourage employees to be creative and willingly experiment without worrying about punishment or embarrassment. This ignites self-motivation and team collaboration and that encourages creative problem-solving and innovation. This doesn’t mean mistakes are overlooked, particularly those caused by laziness or carelessness – what is preventable with appropriate care and due diligence must always be addressed. Otherwise, there is no accountability. Rather, when stuff happens, it needs to be viewed with an open mind as an opportunity to recalibrate and get better.
Three actions constitute the essential elements of learning from mistakes. First, identify why they happened. Instead of basing performance metrics on incident avoidance, focus on understanding how employees typically deal with unexpected outcomes, whether those involved feel supported when they occur, and the extent to which they have access to the resources needed to fix the problems. Second, reward people for bringing the errors to your attention. Knowledge transfer is the essence of a learning culture. Incentivize and congratulate those who have the confidence, if not the courage, to admit it and ensure they have the appropriate tools, templates and processes to share their learning easily and broadly.
Lastly, conduct postmortems or post-incident reviews as learning forums, not inquisitions. Take the time to document, reflect on and discuss critical failures to understand how they might impact core functions or can suggest procedural steps that could be strengthened. An incident report consists of five basic questions asked in this sequence: What did we expect to happen? What actually happened? Why was there a difference between what we expected and what happened? What have we learned? What can we do differently next time?
Do these three things in a way that empowers workers to speak up when they see potential problems or operational hiccups in their infancy. Give them a sense of ownership when it comes to identifying process vulnerabilities and other weaknesses within the organization. Role model transparency and frequent questioning by developing and widely sharing a process for both detecting and reporting errors without repercussion before they escalate into more significant issues.
Don’t be afraid of or annoyed when failure occurs – it’s inevitable in a creative enterprise. In fact, it’s the hallmark of a creative enterprise. Also, it’s simply because stuff happens. Embrace the mistakes as opportunities that embolden your employees to try new things and become more inventive. How you address what happens that you hope will not is the foundation of a learning culture. And that’s the fuel that propels high performance and enables the organization to liberate and optimize the innate potential of its workforce.