Allowing Mistakes at Work

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something”.Neil Gaiman

Is your company regressive – as in it believes in punishing its people for errors? One of the main characteristics of high performing companies is that they are open to allowing mistakes at work – the kind of mistakes that teach and help the company and its employees to learn and move ahead. Allowing mistakes at work means that the company is confident of its employees in the belief that what is done incorrectly once will not be repeated and rather they would learn from the error. People tend to learn better and quicker from their mistakes simply because it can cause embarrassment and these mistakes at work tend to remain in focus till they are sorted out. The learning therefore from such errors therefore remains with the employee who would tend to be more careful in the future and produce better and more efficient work output.

The human tendency is to avoid accepting and even negating mistakes and there is refusal to own up to them. However, in a company that supports people’s efforts and allows mistakes at work, the environment is less stressed and people are happy to give their best. The fact is that owning up to one’s mistakes at work is seemingly harder at the top rungs – there is more to lose and also as leaders people are always looking at them and to them as examples. Openly admitting to mistakes at work therefore becomes tedious and something that people in positions of authority would not want to do. For a company to have a high performing workforce and a culture of innovation, it is important that making mistakes at work are seen as opportunities to learn and do better thereby increasing the tolerance and flexibility for failure. There is no company that can claim that they have never failed or messed up. The companies that are considered most successful have been the ones to have made and allowed mistakes at work but refused to assign blame – rather they have forged ahead with the experience and learning they gained from the incident. They would have focused on finding solutions, improving their existing practices and put in place stringent measures to ensure that the same mistake is never repeated.  Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time”.George Bernard Shaw. Employees and others do not ‘live’ in constant fear and neither are they expected to be perfect in such companies. Each person is giving a fair chance to discuss the issue, provide solutions and then work collaboratively to remedy the error – it is a great way to enhance cohesion and team spirit within co-workers.

As a company if you expect to be known as successful and a company that should be emulated, then while allowing mistakes at work you would also refuse to dwell on why the mistake was made but rather look at the reasons that caused the error and what can be done to fix it. In fact in companies that allow mistakes at work, hiding or trying to ‘sweep the mistake under the carpet’ would not be tolerated. The learning is so effective, that people remember never to make the same mistake ever again – this has a trickle effect and can prevent a number of related mistakes from being made. The belief of such progressive companies is that no mistakes mean that people are following the safe route, using traditional methods and refusing to leave their comfort zones. How can progress and innovation be expected of such a culture and such a people? You might as well shut shop and invest your money elsewhere.

Companies that have a forward looking and progressive approach will empower their employees and allow them the discretion to do their job in the manner they know best and to their maximum ability. If there are occasions, and there will be, when there are mistakes committed the company will be capable and flexible enough to make the necessary changes and fix the problem with the help of the ‘erring’ employee. Some employees might find taking charge in this manner scary and or overwhelming – but in order to survive and be successful and remain a part of such companies, this kind of onus and engagement is required. In fact, such companies not only allow mistakes at work, they encourage people to speak loud and clearly about behaviour that would be contrasting in direct conflict to the company’s culture and vision.

We have discussed earlier, that despite being a demanding set, even customers are understanding and tolerant of mistakes – as long as the recovery is swift and they never need to face the same problem again. Allowing employees to make mistakes at work, will give them the required leeway and a learning experience that no training or coaching program will ever be equipped to match. In fact learning in this way not only equips the errant employee to know better it also enables them to pass on the learning to their team mates. We are not suggesting that mistakes at work must continue unabated. Some mistakes can prove costly and such learning must already be passed on to the employees, before-hand. There must be a fine balance between giving your employees a stress free workplace and protecting your company and preventing losses.

Companies that have a proactive and high performance mind-set will be able to distinguish between genuine mistakes – the ones that occur despite best efforts and just plain careless mistakes. This second type of mistakes need to be dealt with severely since not doing so would mean rewarding the employees for being lazy, lax, disinterested or shirkers of responsibility. With time and experience, these mistakes are easily distinguishable and managers and leaders must be well-equipped and skilled to root out these mistakes and deal appropriately with the ‘perpetrators’.

Being courageous enough as a company to allow mistakes at work begins with a culture where each person must take responsibility of their actions. The work environment must be such that they can, not only take decisions but also be able to explain why they chose the ‘path’ and also whether they would be able to handle the ‘twists and turns’ if and when they come without making any serious blunders. However, the set rule must certainly be that once is fine but repeating the same mistake is not permissible and will be dealt with appropriately.  To encourage your employees to get better at work, plum projects that have stringent deadlines, set specifications and require attention to detail must be handed to the high potential employees. This boosts their confidence and the company gets a good set of minds and hands working on a crucial project. Those employees that don’t land these high profile assignments would need to sharpen their skills and their knowledge if they expect to be chosen the next time round.

A company that allows mistakes at work is providing its good employees with a ‘safety net’ that protects them from the consequences that the error may bring. Of course, the safety net only works for the one time! No mistakes are acceptable when the same one is repeated. This kind of an open environment builds a relationship of trust between the company, its leaders and all employees. They understand that making mistakes at work – genuine ones – will not be held against them and not be seen as a failure. They would be goaded to work better, suggest new and creative ideas and also add to their own capabilities and skills.

No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes – it just means that people are trying and wanting to achieve things that they did not attempt hitherto.  Allowing mistakes at work means that you are providing your employees with a sound footing and a solid path of growth which would complemented by innovation, creativity, discoveries and each person involved will move closer to success and professional glory.

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