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7 Embracing Mistakes: The Key to Psychological Safety and Growth in the Workplace

“On this team, we eat failure for breakfast.”

I once had a team leader who instilled that particular mantra into our team. Pretty much every time we met, she would reinforce the idea that if we were not making mistakes, then we were not growing. Our team was focused on sales, and while we, of course, celebrated the wins, we also took time to celebrate the rejections and failed experiments that our team experienced as we continued to find new and innovative ways to drive our mission forward. 

In the realm of workplace culture, psychological safety has emerged as a cornerstone for thriving teams. One of the central aspects of a psychologically safe culture is the trust that it is ok to make mistakes. But what if merely allowing mistakes doesn’t take it far enough? I am reminded of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky's famous words, "You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take." To be truly innovative, our teams must be encouraged to take more shots, knowing that many will miss in pursuit of the next big win. 

 Why Mistakes Are Essential

On a team where innovation is not just a buzzword but a lived reality, mistakes are not just tolerated; they are essential. They are the crucibles where true learning and innovation are forged. Consider this: every mistake is a rich, untapped well of insight, offering lessons that go beyond the scope of theoretical knowledge. When a team embraces each error as an opportunity to grow and improve, they're essentially committing to a culture of continuous innovation. It's like taking more 'shots' in a game, learning and adapting with each attempt, embodying Wayne Gretzky's wisdom of missing every shot you don't take.

In such a culture, risk-taking becomes a norm, not an anomaly. Employees feel safe and even encouraged to step out of their comfort zones, knowing that their calculated risks, irrespective of the outcome, are valued. This mindset shift is vital; it's about seeing attempts and their diverse outcomes as equally important in the journey toward success.

The way leaders handle mistakes sets the tone for the entire team. Imagine a leader who openly discusses their missteps and the lessons drawn from them. This not only builds trust but also fosters a sense of openness and vulnerability among team members. Such transparency is a cornerstone of psychological safety, creating an environment where everyone feels secure enough to speak up, experiment, and, yes, even fail. This is where the magic of innovation truly happens, in an atmosphere where trying and failing are just as celebrated as succeeding.

Learning to Debrief Well

To transform mistakes into powerful learning experiences, leaders can implement a structured Debrief Cycle consisting of three critical steps. First, initiate an Open Discussion where the team collectively acknowledges the mistake without assigning blame. This step is crucial for creating a non-judgmental space where everyone feels comfortable sharing their perspectives. Next, engage in a Reflective Analysis to dissect the mistake. Here, the focus should be on understanding the root causes and the decision-making process that led to the error. Encourage the team to look at the situation from different angles, fostering a culture of inquisitive learning rather than one of fault-finding. The final step is Actionable Learning, where the team collaborates to draw concrete lessons from the mistake. This phase involves identifying specific, actionable steps to avoid similar errors in the future and applying these insights to improve processes and decision-making. 

By consistently following this Debrief Cycle, teams can develop a more resilient and innovative mindset, viewing mistakes not as setbacks but as stepping stones to greater success and learning.

Concrete Ways to Turn Mistakes into Wins

  • Celebrate ‘Great Tries’: The only true “miss” is not taking the shot in the first place. Encourage your team to share their 'great tries' or noble failures in meetings, emphasizing the value of the attempt and the learning derived.
  • ‘Learning from Mistakes’ Workshop: Develop workshops focused on extracting lessons from past errors, encouraging a mindset that every 'missed shot' is a step towards a future goal.
  • Mistake-based Learning in Performance Reviews: Shift performance reviews to include what was learned from mistakes, fostering a growth mindset that resonates with Gretzky's philosophy of seizing every opportunity.
  • ‘Safe-to-Fail’ Project Space: Dedicate time for ‘safe-to-fail’ projects, where the focus is on experimenting and learning, not just on hitting the target.
  • Leadership Role Modeling: Leaders should openly acknowledge their mistakes, setting an example that in trying, learning, and sometimes missing, there is invaluable growth.

Instill’s Role in a Mistake-Friendly Environment

Instill's Culture Operating System™ can significantly aid in fostering a culture where mistakes are seen as part of the learning process. It offers data-driven insights and feedback mechanisms to help leaders identify and address areas where trust, psychological safety, and innovation are slipping, offering timely nudges and actionable ideas to grow your workplace culture.  

Transforming how an organization views mistakes from a source of fear to an opportunity for learning is vital. It’s about actively recognizing, as Wayne Gretzky so eloquently put it, that it’s only the shots we don’t take that become missed opportunities. In cultures where mistakes are valued as learning opportunities, every misstep becomes a stepping stone to greater success, innovation, and a psychologically safe workplace.


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