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Are you familiar with the phrase “we all make mistakes?” It’s undeniably true – we all make mistakes, some more than others. How wonderful!

Wait, what? Wonderful?

Yes, it sounds cliché, but when you dig into the concept of failure from a psychological perspective, it is clear that the human brain learns best when we make mistakes… and accept that those mistakes are a natural part of learning. Psychologist Carol Dweck is most often cited as founding the concept of the growth mindset, a mindset that sees skills and intelligence as improvable rather than set in stone. A growth mindset looks at mistakes as opportunities to learn, adapt, and improve.

But what does that really mean?

When it comes to training, developing, and shaping your workforce, your organization’s culture and attitude towards making mistakes can make or break your success. A workplace culture that encourages learning from failed projects or outcomes is building within itself an ever-growing pool of knowledgeable and competent talent. This organization will most likely experience improved internal processes, increased client satisfaction, and greater innovation in product or service delivery. Change is exciting for this organization as it provides opportunities to adapt and try new things.

Conversely, a workplace that punishes mistakes, seeks to blame, and engages in scapegoating creates a culture that is both toxic and stagnant. This organization will soon be overtaken by its competitors as its knowledge base remains constant or decreases as employees disengage and eventually depart. Change is frightening, and this organization will have significant challenges adapting.

Given how quickly the world around us is changing, which organization do you want to be leading?

Embracing the opportunities in your organization to learn from failure is not easy, but it is worthwhile. Here are a few tips to begin shifting your culture from one of blame to one of learning:

Start small. The idea of allowing employees to fail can be frightening! This is especially true if you are in a fail-sensitive industry, such as healthcare. Each industry has certain standards and procedures which, for safety’s sake, cannot be compromised. However, there is still room to create space for risk taking and the learning that comes with it. Maybe a pilot phase could be added to an already in-progress project to identify what isn’t working and learn from it? Perhaps your procedures could be improved with some team brainstorming – there are no bad suggestions here!

Forget blame. It sounds easy, but avoiding blame can be an unexpected challenge. Humans are wired to avoid threats, and the implicit threat of punishment or even being put on the spot can trigger these instincts. Especially if learning from failure is new to your team, it is important to approach failed projects like an archaeologist would approach a dig site – methodically and eagerly, expecting to find something valuable when sifting through the dirt. Some valuable questions to ask during your dig include:

  • “What could our team as a whole have improved on?”
  • “What skills or knowledge could have helped us?”
  • “What do we know now that, if we’d known it earlier, could have changed the outcome?”

Celebrate risks. Yes, that’s right. Celebrate risk-taking! Someone suggests a change to an existing process? Celebrate! A junior team member took initiative to reach out to another department for information? Celebrate! A quiet teammate took the role of Devil’s advocate in a team discussion? Celebrate! Your celebrations don’t have to be large; simply saying “what a great suggestion!” or “let’s thank Sally for taking that initiative!” will be effective.

Be vulnerable. As a leader, it is your responsibility to lead by example. If you wish to create a culture of learning in your team, it falls to you to set the tone. Ask questions. Try new things. Invite ideas and brainstorming. And when you fail, share the story of your failure and what you learned with your team.

Your Engaged HR Assignment: The next time a project misses the mark, gather your team for a learning session. Set blame aside, celebrate the risk, and collectively agree on what you would do differently next time. Need some help starting the conversation? Reach out to us!

Looking to learn more about other HR topics? Check out our Art of HR series!

The Art of HR
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