Why Organizations Should Encourage Employees to Recognize Mistakes and Learn From Them

Every last one of us makes mistakes — that’s a given. If you aren’t making any mistakes, chances are you’re not trying anything new, which is a mistake in itself. The famed UCLA basketball coach John “the Wizard of Westwood” Wooden said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

Although they often feel like huge gaffes or missteps (especially when it’s you who’s made them), mistakes can lead to great ideas and innovation. But in reality, they are the stepping stones that propel us out of our comfort zone into the growing zone, where great lessons can be learned. After all, how can you tell if something works if you don’t try it?

Contrary To Popular Belief, Mistakes Are Not Failures

Mistakes are the natural process of systematically eliminating things that don’t work in order to come closer to the ones that do. In fact, it is this process of elimination that has fueled most scientific discoveries throughout human history.

Yet, today’s culture favors an environment where mistakes need to be avoided at all costs. When we make an error, we immediately feel embarrassed, frustrated or scared of the repercussions. This is particularly true if the mistake happens at work where your boss or manager is watching your every move and has little tolerance for error.

But in the big picture, barring those times when mistakes can really have a significant impact, they are not the end of the world. In fact, when acknowledged, analyzed and corrected, mistakes can actually generate several key benefits.

What Are the Benefits of Making Mistakes in the Workplace?

It goes without saying that business leaders should not create a working environment where there is no accountability and where carelessness reigns supreme. However, by creating a culture where people are given the space to try new things and aren’t penalized for failing, the entire organization will stand to gain. When fear of failing is not the dominant part of the culture, the following positive results can occur:

  • A more open and honest environment: When mistakes are not seen as absolute disasters, employees will spend less time trying to hide them and more time trying to fix them. They will be far more likely to go to their manager, tell him or her about what happened, and explain how they plan on fixing it. On the other hand, in a punitive workplace, staff members will try to sweep their mistakes under the rug, hoping nobody will notice. If they are discovered, the blame game is sure to follow. Without a doubt, one of the keys to a trustworthy and well-functioning organization is the accepting of mistakes as part of daily life.
  • A happier workforce: By removing the threat of punishment for employees’ mistakes, companies will see a general boost in morale. This will not only help create a more positive and collaborative environment, but will also increase overall productivity.
  • Establishing a learning culture: When leaders allow occasional mistakes to happen, they are giving employees the freedom to admit that they don’t know everything and to try something new, even if they’re not sure it will work. (At SAMC, we’ve written a blog on this, which you can read here.) This freedom to explore also gives employees the opportunity to learn and improve their knowledge. Instead of trying to fake their way through tasks, they can admit their shortcomings and get the support they need to develop their skills. This will also help increase their satisfaction and loyalty, not to mention their overall capabilities.
  • Encouraging innovation: The fear of failure is the #1 reason why people are not more innovative or creative. By accepting mistakes as part of doing business and by allowing their teams to fail, leaders will nurture an environment where innovation is bound to happen.
  • Fewer mistakes: Not surprisingly, the fear of making mistakes often leaves people feeling stressed and anxious, causing them to make even more mistakes. Conversely, by allowing for a margin of error, stress levels tend to decrease, along with the likelihood of more mistakes.

Preventing Mistakes Shouldn’t Be a Priority…Encouraging Them Should Be

Many business leaders take their responsibilities so seriously that they make it their personal mission to prevent their team members from making mistakes. Unfortunately, this often leads to a micro-management managerial style that fails to delegate and creates a sense of fear and lack of innovation. Nobody will be willing to take a chance on an unproven creative idea if failure results in severe disapproval or even punishment.

Alternatively, leaders need to realize that instead of discouraging mistakes and preventing employees from taking any risks, they should actually encourage these mistakes. Great leaders will allow their staff members the freedom to misstep on occasion. Those who tell their employees they cannot fail and who punish mistakes will only prevent the organization from moving forward.

How Mistakes Can Actually Make Employees Better

When employees make a mistake at work (as we all do), they need to:

  1. Learn from it. Don’t get defensive. Be willing to look at it objectively.
  2. Own it. Readily admit to the error. Don’t make up excuses. Figure out and share openly what they can learn from it.
  3. Fix it. Good employees will do their best to rectify their wrongs. Granted, there may be times when the damage cannot be completely fixed. Nevertheless, they can establish a timeline for fixing the mistake and communicating their entire process to leadership.
  4. Make sure the same mistake will not be repeated. This step is the most important in the learning process. The whole point of learning from your mistakes is to recognize them, document them and establish safeguards that ensure the same errors won’t happen again. This goes for not just the individual but the company as a whole.

For More On The Subject, Two Blogs and a Podcast

One Personal Thought About Mistakes 

I built a company in the education testing field. I made plenty of mistakes along the way. Some avoidable, some unavoidable. But the key is something that Teddy Roosevelt said in his 1910 “Man in the Arena” speech, which deals with getting off the floor after getting knocked down to fight another day.

So, remember: mistakes have a lot to teach us if we let them. The biggest challenge for leaders and employees is to see it that way. If you’d like to learn more about how to leverage mistakes and use them to your advantage, contact us at Simon Associates Management Consultants. We specialize in helping organizations change, grow and thrive amidst today’s changing times. We’d love to have a conversation about how we could help you and your business soar.

From Observation to Innovation,


Andy Simon
Partner, Simon Associates Management Consultants

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