Instead of penalizing employees for mistakes employers should try this

October 27, 2020

Can we avoid penalizing employees for mistakes

Ed Wells, Head of Strategy & Development at Sologic, explains why instead of penalizing employees for mistakes managers should embrace errors.

Penalizing employees is not the right approach

Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”  We have all heard this phrase before. We may even have uttered it ourselves a few times.  Sounds tough and empowering, doesn’t it? 

But successful managers know that great solutions only come from a forensic understanding of how a problem really came about – and that can’t happen when employees are too afraid to own up to mistakes. 

Albert Einstein quote

So why is this so important? Put bluntly, success almost certainly depends on it. Mistakes and near misses are teeming with vital information. For this reason, growth, real growth, is virtually impossible when employees don’t even want to acknowledge failure, let alone admit to it. 

Just try to imagine life in an organization that ignores huge swathes of this valuable information and replaces this with decisions built on blind optimism, gut-feeling or groupthink. Or worse still, one that uses failure as a threat.  Such an organization would, in all likelihood never reach its full potential. 
In truth, very few businesses set out to make their decisions in this way.  But this doesn’t stop firm after firm falling into the ‘failure-denial trap’.  The ‘failure-denial trap’ is much more than an organization merely airbrushing over problems. They actively embed procedures, both formal and informal, that actively discourage the identification of mistakes, and with it, any possibility of learning from them. 

Add the Coronavirus pandemic to this, with the additional stress of working from home, limited resources, reduced job security, and stretched lines of communication, and see how this culture amplifies.  And if a business has slipped further, to a toxic blame culture, with arbitrarily applied discipline, this trap is even harder to escape.

Embrace employee mistakes

But for every business that airbrushes over error, there are others that embrace it.  These progressive organizations acknowledge that the richest source of information sits directly between what happened and what should have happened.  They don’t ignore it, they utilize it.  

These organizations work tirelessly to encourage their teams to share information on problems, near misses, and failures. By treating good news and bad news as equals they recognize that all information, if evidence-based is equal, regardless of how it makes us feel.  If we think of every business as a ‘solutions engine’ it is information that’s the fuel.  Starve this engine of some of the fuel sources and your journey is cut short.  Put the wrong fuel in the engine and watch it splutter and stall.

What is a Just Culture?

There is a concept known as the Just-Culture which encourages employees to own up to an error.  The Just-Culture model holds organizations accountable for the systems they design and how their employees act within them. Mistakes are therefore a result of the interaction of people, their tools, their instructions and the environment they’re operating in.  Employees are accountable but, crucially, not responsible. 
Organisations that successfully create this ‘just culture’ will treat positive and negative information as equals and as a result, are always going to be far better placed to make fully informed decisions throughout a crisis. Not only that, they will have a far, far better understanding of the wider risks of any changes they make.
So ask yourself:

  • Does your organization project a truly objective approach to the information?
    How easy is it to discuss negative events?
  • Did the workplace environment make mistakes inevitable?
    Have you become addicted to good news stories?
  • When success happens do you simply high-five or drill into the mistakes that happened along the way?
  • Do you recognize that successful outcomes are often built from essential mistakes?

With 2020 rubbishing the established playbook of all organizations this is an opportunity for many businesses to reappraise their workplace culture.  We know that all individuals and organizations make mistakes.  A reluctance or even fear of owning up to these errors and sharing the details only serves to ignore and stockpile risk. This only serves to greatly increase the likelihood and scale of future errors.  

If 2020 has encouraged you to address aspects of your workplace culture, ensure that your approach to failure is front and center of that appraisal. The payback will be substantial. 

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