Help Your Team Learn From Mistakes
One of your people walks into your office with that look. You know the look. The one that says… I have something I need to tell you that I really don’t want to tell you.
I’ve written in the Harvard Business Review online about ways to help your team be open to change. How you handle mistakes is key part of helping you team thrive during change and become more innovative themselves. The way you handle mistakes can create psychological safety or fear. You have to ask yourself… what’s my goal here? How can I manage this conversation so that we make the mistake a growth opportunity… one that pays dividends down the road?
Helping your team learn from mistakes includes 5 actions you should take during conversations with your team. The first and last are actions you should take during conversations with your entire team on a regular basis. The other three are for those times when someone with that look walks into your office:
Action 1: Model the Way
Acknowledge and be accountable for your mistakes, especially if you are a senior leader. Too often, people who are a few layers removed from you in the organization feel like you may be where you are because you did not make significant mistakes. Tell stories of times you made mistakes and how you moved forward. Learning from mistakes is easier if leaders show you how.
Action 2: Respond Rather Than React
When someone comes to you with a mistake, you may feel frustration, disappointment or even anger. Use your emotional intelligence to respond rather than react. Ask yourself a few questions. How does this make me feel? What would be the most productive response in this situation, if our goal is to use mistakes as a learning and growth opportunity? How is the other person feeling? How can I help both of us use this as a springboard for innovation?
Action 3: Acknowledge feelings first.
No one feels good about making a mistake. Ask how they feel about the situation. Recognize that it can be difficult to make a mistake, much less to have to tell your boss about it. You might want to tell them you’ve made that mistake (or one like it) yourself in the past.
Action 4: Ask questions.
During the conversation, you may be tempted to jump right into problem-solving mode where you explain how to fix things. Resist the urge. Instead, ask questions. Let the individual explain the situation and follow-up with questions that allow the two of you to turn this into a learning conversation. If you could do this over again, how would you approach it? What do you think we need to do at this point? What is an important take away you have from this situation? What could I have done to support you differently? How can I help going forward? When someone figures out how to fix their own mistake, they begin to learn how to fix mistakes in general and even how to avoid similar ones in the future.
Action 5: Champion the mistake-makers (judiciously, of course)
In a 2010 Inc. article, Michael Alter tells the story of how he created a ‘Best New Mistakes” competition at SurePayroll and its impact on the culture. The rules were simple – you must nominate yourself, explain the mistake, and what you learned from it. Entries were read, discussed and winners were chosen at company meetings. It was approached in a light-hearted way, allowing everyone to have fun and learn at the same time. Alter ‘formalized failure’ and allowed people to get over the stigma associated with mistakes.
When one of your team members comes into your office with that look you want them to walk out feeling understood and even energized by the opportunities created by their mistake.
What other tips do you have for helping your team learn from their mistakes? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.