A Safe Place to Mess Up

person spilling drink
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

I once worked for a boss known for his rigidity.

He was ex-military and everything about him said “high expectations.” His appearance was impeccable. He demanded punctuality. He walked, talked and managed with an emphasis on efficiency.

So when I accidentally sent the wrong email to a group of very high-value people, I was not only mortified, I was terrified.

First there was the gut-dropping feeling of realizing I had messed up. I take a lot of pride in my work and screwing up like that – publicly, no less – was horrifying.

Then there was the terror of what would happen when the boss found out. I was a probationary employee, which made me pretty expendable.

There was no calling back the wrong email, but I did send the group the correct email with an apology. I wanted to crawl under my desk, but instead I notified the people in the office who might be affected in case they needed to do their own damage control.

Then I waited.

I waited all day. I didn’t see my boss until the next morning. He entered the break room as I was making coffee. I smiled and fought the urge to run.

He said hello and then stood shoulder to shoulder, not looking at me.

“I flew combat missions in Afghanistan,” he said.

I told him I knew.

“I was a medic,” he continued. “I was flying in and out of places with heavy fighting, getting out the wounded.”

That was when he looked at me.

“That was life or death,” he said. “Nothing we do here is life or death. There are no emergencies and there’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Then he walked away.

That was it. No upbraiding. No punishment. He didn’t even actually mention the mistake or how he felt about it. He acknowledged that it happened and let it go.

From that time on, any time I made a mistake – I did go on to make more, though not all so high profile – I simply took responsibility, did what I could to remedy the situation, and got on with business. I was highly productive, and when I left that job was made an offer to stay.

Every employee is a person first, and people make mistakes. We mess up. Sometimes it’s a lack of experience, sometimes a lack of understanding, sometimes we’re just having a bad moment and click the wrong button.

If your business is place where people fear their mistakes, that fear will inhibit everything they do. Every task will take longer as they stress about whether it’s really, truly perfect. They will be afraid to propose something different or try something new, even if they have a really good idea. After all, what if it doesn’t work?

Mistakes are especially rampant when people are learning new things. Babies stumble a lot before they learn to walk. Musicians hit a lot of wrong notes before their fingers get to know their way around the instrument. Messing up is an integral part of the learning process, which means it will be almost impossible for employees to master new processes and tasks if they are afraid of making a mistake.

One of the best things a supervisor can do to increase staff productivity and satisfaction is create an atmosphere where it is safe to screw up.

That doesn’t mean mistakes should never be addressed. In order to learn from our failures, we have to understand what went wrong and how to avoid it next time. It is also important you require your employees to take responsibility for their mistakes and to do what they can to mitigate the damage.

If you find out your employee messed up and hid it from you, the disciplinary action should be to address the coverup, not the mistake. Make that clear. If, like my ex-boss, you find your employee messed up but then owned up to the mistake and took steps to correct it, follow his example and let them know it’s not the end of the world – or their career.

In an environment where people feel safe to make mistakes, they also feel safe to learn, safe to grow, and safe to innovate. Those are the people that will lift your business to a higher plane.

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