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3 ways to create safety around mistakes

1 Dec 2022 | Being Human

One thing I often explore with a team or organisation in a Struggle talk, is the culture around making mistakes.

Specifically how safe is it, to talk about and learn from mistakes? And what helps?

Here are three practical ideas:

#my-latest-mistake

At Think Productive, we have a Slack (our internal comms) channel called #my-latest-mistake. Here’s the description:

Made a mistake? It’s ok, we’re all trying our best! Mistakes are golden opportunities to learn, grow & improve the way we do things. This channel is a safe space to share recent personal mistakes (big/small) & to celebrate the learning.

Our MD set this up – and she was the first to post on it. It’s a great way to normalise mistakes, to have a safe space to talk about them openly, and support each other in how we recover and learn from them. Another example shared with me this week was a practice called “F*** up Fridays!”

Ask how (or what) rather than who

It’s so easy to personalise mistakes. To translate ‘that was a stupid thing to do’ to ‘I’m stupid’ or ‘I got it wrong’ to ‘I am wrong’.

The base fear that makes us want to hide mistakes is fear of rejection. So when someone asks ‘who did that?’ in relation to something that’s gone wrong, there’s a part of us that instinctively wants to duck for cover.

In this excellent video, Dr Paul Furey suggests asking ‘How’ instead of ‘Who’. How did this happen? (Or my variation: what happened?) Rather than ‘who did that?’

’Not only does that help to depersonalise the mistake, it also helps us to reflect on what circumstances and processes may have contributed to the mistake. Which is often where the more useful learning is.

Even if it’s something like ‘ah, I had too much going on’ or ‘I was tired’ (which incidentally is exactly how I managed to get on the wrong train recently!).

Maybe we don’t even have to call it a mistake?!

As one delegate pointed out, the word mistake is loaded with so much judgement.

What if we don’t use that word? What if we talk about our surprises, detours, deviations, plot twists, unexpected outcomes, or happy accidents?

Not so much about spin, being politically correct or covering up (and if you’re apologising for a mistake, you might still want to call it that!) but to offer our brains a different way of seeing this thing. One that might gently nudge our brains from fear to curiosity. 

But wait, can we make it too easy for people to make mistakes?

This has come up too. “Well of course, we don’t want to reward people for making mistakes…” someone said in a session the other day.

Thing is, how often have you actually wanted to repeat a mistake?! Where do we get the idea from that we’ll only be deterred from a mistake if we get punished for it?

When we’re engaged, invested in our work and clearly aligned on our purpose, values, and outcomes, most of us typically want to get things right, and we’re mortified enough when we don’t. When that’s not the case, then we probably have an engagement, alignment or trust issue – not a mistakes issue!

Besides, an unsafe environment doesn’t actually make us less likely to make mistakes, just less likely to want to acknowledge or reflect on them!

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you have any examples of how someone has made it safe for you to look at and learn from mistakes? Let me know in the comments. 

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Image if author Grace Marshall

About Grace

I coach, train, write and speak on productivity. I help people adopt new ways of working and thinking about their work to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction.

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