8 Great ways to cultivate a mistake culture and become effective mistakers

An illustration of a businessman reaching for a banana.

How often have you met someone in the workplace saying contentedly, ‘I’ve done a huge mistake but I’m so glad because I learned so much from it’? Although we hear it plenty of times (‘learn from your mistakes’) this post looks at the size of the task, how a shifting mindset involves profound change and what a healthy culture of error and trying may look like.

1. ‘We learn from our mistakes’: do we?

When I hear people talking about their past-mistakes-turned-valuable-‘experiences’, their body language is similar. Unless time has significantly faded the frustration, the conversation comes with a dash of bitterness and their resilience tested. Understanding past experiences that did not lead to the consequences we anticipated is important. How we get there, however, takes more than few words. It is not easy to cultivate a positive mistake culture.

We (may) learn from our mistakes after we have repeated them multiple times. Sometimes we hardly learn a thing. Sometimes ‘multiple times’ means years of getting it wrong the same way. We wrestle with our self-esteem when we finally see our perseverance in not getting it right, which could range from a bit wrong to expensively wrong. We got to show up vulnerable to ourselves and, at times, to what we perceive as a mountain-tall ‘everybody’. Ouch.

Owning our mistakes, though, has its brilliant upsides. They are not just about healthy accountability and showing up vulnerable; more importantly, they are an extraordinary way to engage people at a very different level. Owning our mistakes builds credibility because no one always gets it right. In the long run, they boost our authority.

So how do we cultivate this?

2. How to become effective mistakers

Creating a successful organisational culture requires vision and many concerted efforts. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an entire organisation to change the culture.

A positive culture of mistakes starts by having successfully and openly disconnected mistakes from failure. When the two stay in their respective jars, people are allowed to become effective mistakers. A healthy mistake culture indeed needs to cultivate some of the following:

  1. A shift of focus from tools and processes to mindsets and attitudes. The full attention is on the behaviour, not the outcome.
  2. Having worked-out the major constraining factors to a positive error culture: the tendency to conceal or window dressing, as well as the tendency to fall into the blaming game. This means being good problem-solvers.
  3. Role-modelling from the top. We look at our leaders for acceptable behaviours; these include inviting challenges, not only confirmations, admitting mistakes and handling them with grace.
  4. Building safety by making consequences to mistakes clear, transparent and fair.
  5. Recognising that different mistakes call for different treatments: if it was largely foreseeable, it should be treated less favourably. Sorry folks.
  6. Reinforcing a shared belief that innovation is built on errors. No one is (or stays) creative if they are not allowed to try multiple times.
  7. Giving voice to incidental learning alongside more structured learning avenues.
  8. Create a positive environment for talking about it: lesson-learned workshops, ‘what I learned this week’ talks in team meetings, a dedicated section in internal newsletters or noticeboards.

3. Why do we fear making mistakes and how to overcome it

I think it helps recognising that the whole thing is not picnic time. It is indeed, a pretty substantial rewiring of the brain, which, in addition to the workplace culture, may have roots as deep as in our family systems (how often were we tolerated or told-off as children for our mistakes? How often did we witness blaming as opposed to resolving?) and our school systems.

Many schools and learning environments try to champion a healthy error culture but not all deliver it. For example, when the reward system glorifies perfection and is geared to celebrate error-free outputs. We hear ‘mistakes are good’, but how often do we hear anyone admitting the mistakes? We inevitably develop a partly conscious, partly unconscious aversion to making mistakes when open conversations about them are rare.

Behaviour changes are a massive task. But (self-)knowledge is power and every shift helps. Recognising our triggers helps. Noticing what clouds our thinking when we see our experimenting is getting difficult helps. Moving on graciously from our ‘should-haves’ (‘I should have double checked that!’) helps. Teaming up with someone fun to handle our mistakes helps – a lot.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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