Permission to Fail: 3 Tips to Using Mistakes to Your Advantage

(By Mike Raftery)

There is nothing less efficient than an environment of paranoia in the workplace.  The energy wasted second guessing, trying to read the minds of one’s superiors and colleagues, the culture of mistrust – these all stamp out any hope of productivity.  In my experience, the paranoia stems from priority being placed on not making mistakes, rather than finding real solutions.  More energy is spent finding the scapegoat rather than fixing an issue when it arises.  Worse than productivity lost is the stagnation of an organization in this state.  The entire workforce becomes paralyzed, fearing that they’ll do something wrong.  Status quo is rewarded, “no” is the standard issue response and any risk taking is completely off the table.  With any risk comes the possibility of failure, and if all missteps are treated with the same blunt force instrument why bother sticking your neck out at all?

If you’re finding yourself in that kind of environment, here are 3 steps you can take to turn your paralyzed workforce into a capable, solutions-focused team that’s not afraid to make mistakes and grow.

  1. Create a Work Environment where Employees Can Make and Learn from Their Mistakes

Mistakes are a part of life.  It’s your job to see those mistakes as opportunities to learn, not as failures.  It’s up to you to think of mistake as “tuition” or the cost of learning those lessons.  Focus on the learning, the change and measure the improvement when your team messes up.  Recognize the improvement when it occurs, reward the change, and move on.  It gives everyone a chance to self-correct, and everyone learns and gets better along the way.   If you start having to pay the same tuition twice for the same mistake with the same person, that’s a different conversation, but until then, recognize that the freedom to be wrong is vital to any functioning organization.

  1. Encourage “Learning Room” to Learn New Skills

Improvement is not on a linear curve.  To improve and grow requires some level of risk tolerance and some “learning room.”  It is important to expect improvement, not perfection, with new skills and new technologies.  In order to recognize those improvements, people need to feel comfortable taking the risks required to obtain a new skill.  Otherwise, why bother?  Status quo is always easier to maintain than pushing the envelope.  It’s hard enough to get motivated to do something new; it’s almost impossible to get motivated if there’s a good chance you’ll get knocked down every time you stick your neck out.  Appreciate the risk that people take to grow, and encourage those steps, rather than expecting perfection right out of the gate.

  1. Let Failure Be a Teacher

One of my mentors used to say, “How do you know you’re learning?  It hurts!”  Sometimes failure is the best teacher.  If people are allowed to make mistakes, they will learn faster than they ever could from a book or sheer avoidance, and those lessons are longer lasting as well.  It’s even better if those lessons are shared with the group and result in the avoidance of even more failures along the way.  In fact, encouraging those lessons and rewarding the lesson, not the failure, will make an organization grow together and build upon the successes together, rather than snipe on the failures.

All organizations want to move forward, to drive efficiency and realize opportunities.  None of this is possible if you do not allow people to take risks to get there.  If the status quo is rewarded, then the status quo is what will happen.  Mistakes are inevitable; we’re humans.  The reaction to these mistakes will make or break an organization’s culture for a long time to come.  Realizing this, and fostering the right kind of risk taking, and a safe environment to push the envelope will result in innovative solutions and engaged, productive employees.  And isn’t that what you wanted anyway?

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