“You have to learn from your mistakes!” This is something we tell our children and even ourselves, at least at a personal level. Making mistakes, especially big ones, can bring about powerful experiences that provide us with life lessons for our future.
But… In our society and companies we penalise mistakes.
While this may sound perfectly plausible, the same doesn’t seem to apply for our societal or corporate lives. As soon as we enter school we begin penalising mistakes. The whole logic of how grades work in exams teaches us to avoid them. And later, in our professional lives, this upbringing seems to establish a corresponding mind-set that we must not make mistakes at all.
The culture of avoiding mistakes
A negative way of dealing with failures, human or otherwise, has taken hold in many companies. Whenever something goes wrong the blame game will begin. Instead of looking for solutions management will look for the people who are at fault, which in turn leads to finger-pointing and anxiety-driven behaviour in the workforce.
- People will try to fly under the radar and be more afraid of expressing their ideas.
- Mistakes will be swept under the rug instead of addressed and dealt with.
- Pressure and fear of the bosses will lead to more mistakes.
Last, but not least, if mistakes aren’t addressed such companies rob themselves of the opportunity to learn from them at all. Instead, they will have to deal with a work environment infused with negative emotions, and resulting from that less innovation and more employee turnover.
It is no surprise that all of this happens. Because mistakes can be costly and making a mistake can be a very personal thing even without the possibility of negative feedback.
Changing corporate culture and embracing failure
Looking at the success of many modern start-ups or technology companies, many of the more traditional and bigger firms have realised by now that a positive way to deal with mistakes is key for market success. That they have to use failure in order to get ahead.
But embracing such a corporate culture is easier said than done, especially in big companies. So let’s look at three factors that can be addressed in order to sustainably change corporate culture.
1. The Right Leadership
Leadership is probably *the* most important starting-point for changing corporate culture. Leaders on all hierarchical levels set an example of how work should be done. And the way they deal with mistakes or their employees in general is critical. How do they react when an employee admits that they made a mistake? Do they reward them or are they angry? Are they emotional or rational about it? Will they admit to making mistakes themselves? Or will they even lay the blame on someone else?
Having the right people in these positions is critical, because they can disrupt any attempt at cultivating a specific work environment by their behaviour alone. These have to be people with the right mind-set and the right training.
2. Established Norms and Routines
It is one thing to pay lip-service to accepting failure, but another thing to follow up on this claim. In order to actually address mistakes in a constructive way it is paramount to activelystart doing so. That means implementing routines that promote openly talking about mistakes.
Example: One of our co-workers told us in a meeting last week of an exercise at another company, where in every weekly meeting employees would talk about their most interesting mistake of the week – and be celebrated for it. (On the other hand, if you cannot come up with a mistake you made, you would get booed.) Another way to deal with mistakes is to analyse them and to think about ways of turning them into something positive. The best solutions mostly come from making mistakes.
3. Having a Vision and a Mission
It is also important to communicate and reinforce an innovative mind-set in a company. This has to come straight from the C-suite and has lots to do with internal marketing. There has to be a mission statement about being creative, innovative and trying out stuff. About being allowed to fail and about how failure is important. Because the most innovative companies fail all the time. After all, innovation isn’t about the 9 out of 10 failures that come out of the process, but rather about the one big success.
This is a spirit that should be reinforced in a company. But that’s hard work and everybody has to embrace it. Starting with the leaders.