How do we Make it Safe to Admit Mistakes?

How can an organization create an environment where it’s safe for people to say ‘here’s the part I got wrong’ and ‘this was my mistake’ and otherwise speak honestly about what they can do, what they learned, how they personally contributed to the problem? Because without that honest conversation we cannot institutionalize the process of learning from system mistakes.

The short answer is, we resolve to make it so.

Every time you as a CEO get bad news, think about what your life would be like if you didn’t get it. Would you really rather NOT hear it, and instead be ignorant?

Didn’t think so.

Resist doing the “just human” thing of associating the bad news with the person delivering it. Instead, do the “better human” thing of mentally associating the person with the courage they showed in coming to you, and with the better situation you are in because now you knew something you didn’t know before. Be conscious that, however you treat this person, will dictate how much information you get tomorrow from him and from everyone else around you.

When you can praise and reward people for bringing you critical information in a timely way, you ensure you’ll get the next piece of critical information even faster.

What about real screw-ups?

First, assume the person didn’t intentionally make a mistake. It may help to remember the last time you blew it — you didn’t intend to, did you? Of course not. Neither did your subordinate. So start by focusing on the fact that you know they meant well.

Next, just as with bad news, acknowledge their courage in coming to you, and appreciate the fact that you’re better off knowing than not knowing.

Third, ask them what they’ve learned, and how that learning will be shared so this mistake won’t recur as often.

And finally, ask them how they’ll clean it up. Just because you praise their courage, doesn’t mean you strip them of their responsibility to fix their mistake.

Treat people like adults, and they’ll respond like adults — and pleasantly surprise you with the results.

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