Mistakes: Failures or Opportunities?

Density experiment with one egg floating in glass of saline soluiton other agg sinking in glass of waterWhen my children were young, we watched little television. When we did, it was educational. One favorite was “Demonstrations in Physics” that featured physicist Julius Sumner Miller. With wild white hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and unabashed enthusiasm, he captivated his audience with 15 minute segments of wonder using ordinary things to explore various principles of physics. (Check them out on YouTube.)

He’d often ask, “Why is it so?” after an experiment. One of his remarks, a favorite of mine, came after an experiment didn’t go as planned: “Oh well, an experiment never fails,” he’d say. “You just learn something you didn’t expect to learn.”

Mistakes in the workplace

Mistakes are often seen as failures rather than opportunities. This is as true in businesses and organizations as anywhere else. We’d rather ignore them. They’re regarded as embarrassing evidence of ignorance, lack of understanding and good judgement, or worse yet, incompetence. No wonder we’d rather sweep them under the carpet.

But that comes with a cost. Opportunities for growth are lost. Not all organizations are adverse to embracing mistakes. They recognize them as possible sources of innovation and success.

What makes one business ready to talk about “failures” while another hides them from view? On big factor is psychological safe space.

Safe to speak up

The term “psychological safety” may sound too academic for business operations, but the reality it describes is essential for an organization to excel. Harvard Business School’s professor Amy C. Edmonson, who coined the term in 1999, defines it this way in her TEDx Talk: “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

Her discovery of the importance of psychological safety at work was the result of research attempting to determine the rate of human-related drug errors in modern, tertiary care hospitals. Her part was finding the answer to this question: “Do better hospital care teams make fewer mistakes?” to her surprise, the answer was “no.” Actually, the better teams reported more mistakes. Her insight? Better teams didn’t make more mistakes; they were just more willing to talk about them and address them.

Why? They worked in a place where they felt free to admit mistakes, talk about causes, question, and come up with answers. Their workplace had psychological safety.

Fostering Openness

Edmondson says that if your employees are concerned primarily with self-protection and don’t dare question or bring up new ideas for fear of appearing ignorant or intrusive, your organization will be deprived of learning opportunities and will be less successful.

She offers three strategies to create an atmosphere where people feel free to talk to one another, to explore ideas, and to learn together:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  2. Be open about your fallibility and dependence of information from others.
  3. Be curious. Ask a lot of questions.

Remember Julius Sumner Miller’s take on mistakes and see them as a chance to learn something new!

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Mary van Balen
Mary van Balen
Technical Writer at Delphia Consulting
Mary van Balen is based out of Columbus, Ohio and is a writer for Delphia Consulting. Mary contributes to the Delphia blog on Human Resources issues and Delphia Consulting and Sage product related updates.