13 Jun 2022

The Best Leaders Normalize Making Mistakes

By Kim Ellet, Certified Professional Coach

In many businesses and departments, the culture exists that employees feel like they are walking on proverbial eggshells: that uncomfortable feeling of saying or doing the wrong thing and facing ridicule, shame, or perhaps being “canceled.” The best leaders create and maintain an environment that approves of imperfection.

Here are 4 reasons why it’s important to normalize and support your team members in making decisions and some ideas on how to cultivate that environment.

1. Promote Learning 

In Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, the author outlines the importance of embracing a growth mindset to encourage learning vs. the fixed mindset that penalizes not knowing all the answers. The fixed mindset shuts down problem solving and empowered thinking. Think about learning to ride a bicycle. If given only one chance to get it right without the starting, falling, and getting back up, none of us would be bike riders. Those who practice and undoubtedly make the most mistakes end up as racers, champions, and possibly unicyclists!   The business will always depend too much on the owner or the department head when there is no room for employees to grow and learn from mistakes. One of the most important ways to promote learning is to encourage questions and answer them sincerely without sarcasm or ridicule. Not only must the leader consistently make room for employees to ask, learn, and gain experience, but they must also hold the team accountable for the same nurturing behaviors.

2. Increase Trust 

Studies show that most employees don’t leave an organization, they leave a manager. One of the most important ways to combat turnover and employee disengagement is to develop a culture of mutual trust. When the leader is real with the team and models the acceptance of not being perfect, the team can feel at ease with learning on the job as well. As the leader, be open to sharing stories or examples of mistakes and what was learned along the way. An openness to discussing what went wrong and the takeaway lessons makes it ok – and normal for everyone to relax and feel comfortable learning. It is a relief for example, for the new salesperson to hear about some of the mistakes the boss made while in the same role. The lessons learned by the boss can potentially save the employee from making that mistake again – and gives them permission to make new ones and learn new lessons.

3. Innovate 

Creative thinkers, inventors, and problem solvers thrive by “the drawing board.” I visited an exhibit several years ago of the works of Pablo Picasso. One of the displays that stood out to me was dubbed The Judy Heads. This was almost an entire gallery of Picasso’s sketches of a female model named Judy.  Sketch after sketch showed the evolution of his work and the changes he made to her head and face as he continued to work on what later inspired his piece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The framed works and three-dimensional sculptures were literally his rough drafts, his “mistakes” on his way to creating one of his masterworks. Imagine what would have been lost if he gave up after the first try. The most innovative companies encourage their workers to continue to build on their mistakes, brainstorm, and continue to evolve.

4. Create psychological safety 

The Center for Creative Leadership describes psychological safety as “… the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” Psychological safety is a key component of inclusion and creates a positive environment for employee engagement and retention. It creates a safe space for disagreements and differing perspectives that can serve to improve outcomes. Rather than being stuck in group think, employees who are comfortable disagreeing with each other can improve safety, create innovative products and market segments, and can take risks to further enhance the bottom line. The leader must consistently and intentionally prioritize risk taking and learning from mistakes. Additionally, seek ways to engage all team members to share their input. Look for multiple ways for employees to engage. Those who do not love speaking out in front of others in a group setting likely have valuable ideas to contribute. Rather than missing out on those, consider asking everyone to email the manager with their individual ideas. The ideas can be shared by the manager anonymously, so the merits of the ideas are the focus. This approach can cut down on internal politics and team members holding back true feedback based on who made the suggestion. 

The most effective leaders model the importance of a culture of learning from mistakes. They create an environment of trust and safety which has a direct correlation to employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention. This culture does not happen accidentally. It requires awareness, intention, and consistency. Authentic communication humanizes the leader and helps everyone walk on solid ground instead of on those uncomfortable eggshells!

My dream and my work are for improved cohesion, collaboration, and connection within companies, organizations, and communities. Reach out to me for more information on bringing your team together for effective communication and facilitated safe conversations.  KEllet@thegrowthcoach.com

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