4 Revealing Responses to Mistakes

Misteaks happen!

And when they do, what happens next reveals much about organizational culture.

What mistakes reveal about your organization
Think back to a recent mistake in your organization. How was it handled? What was communicated —overtly and/or covertly — to everyone else about that mistake? What were the consequences and how did they affect future behavior?

Granted, we all make mistakes and not all mistakes are equal. Some are minor and insignificant while others are major with extremely significant, and in some cases, costly, implications.

Here are four typical responses to a mistake – be it minor or major – and what that response says about organizational culture.

Go For the Cover-up. If news of a mistake can be contained, then a typical next step is the cover-up – hide it, bury it, sweep it under the rug – anything but disclose the mistake to others. (Teams go for the cover-up as do individuals.) When cover-up is the first response to a mistake, it is a good sign that fear rules the day. It is also a good sign that risk-taking, innovation and out-of-the box thinking have left the building.

Play the Blame Game. Often, the first course of action after a mistake is to play the blame game, which has two parts: (1) identify the responsible parties; and (2) avoid being identified as among the responsible parties. The blame game is played in a punitive culture, one that believes the stick is mightier than the carrot. In a punitive culture, resources are wasted in insignificant risk reduction activities and, of course, in the maneuvers to CYA.

Blow it Off. “Hey, it was no big deal, everybody makes mistakes.” One way to downplay mistakes is to take a laissez-faire approach where no one interferes with the personal freedoms of their team members. And of course, this you-don’t-mess-with-me-and-I-won’t-mess-with-you approach can seem to work in interest of everyone – except the organization itself. An organizational culture that has abandoned accountability has also compromised its future success.

Learn from It. There is a story that gets told in different forms about Thomas Watson, Sr., founder of IBM. As the story goes, a new vice president had led a risky venture which ended up losing a million dollars, no small sum in IBM’s early days. Watson summoned the vice president to his office. “Do you know why I called you here?” Watson asked. “I suppose to fire me,” the vice president replied. “Fire you?” Watson bellowed, “We just spent a million bucks to educate you!”

In a learning culture, it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.

Eliminating mistakes is not possible; developing healthier responses to mistakes is. We can bury, blame, blow ‘em off – or, in the spirit of Thomas Watson, we can turn them into valuable learning experiences.

Does a commitment to servant leadership encourage healthier responses to mistakes? We believe it does. What’s your experience?