Embracing Errors

Leaders who encourage employees to make small mistakes take the fear out of risk and spark innovation.

By Robert Biswas-Diener Jan 1, 2012
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In my research, I ask world record holders, entrepreneurs and leaders "To what do you attribute your ability to perform well?" All answer in a way that boils down to a willingness to make mistakes.

Mistakes, unfortunately, are not welcome in most organizations. Quite the opposite: They are forbidden, penalized and feared. This creates an environment where people try to cover up their mistakes—often making them worse—or blame others. In the long term, this type of environment can paralyze employees into never trying new ways of doing things, thus stifling innovation.

Encouraging and celebrating "low-stakes" mistakes can unleash creativity and prevent high-cost mistakes down the road.

Management consultant Nicky Garcea of the Center of Applied Positive Psychology in Coventry, England, makes the distinction between high- and low-stakes errors. "Leaders working in high-risk and safety environments, such as defense or engineering, can view mistakes gravely." This is particularly true if the mistake relates to issues regarding safety or security, he says.

But low-stakes mistakes can improve the business.

Brian Corekin, the founder of Portland, Ore.-based Monster Fuses, a supplier of industrial fuses, recalls a time when one of his sales employees took an order but forgot to record the customer's name or contact information. The order could not be filled.

"It cost us a couple thousand dollars," Corekin recalls. "But it helped us learn that we needed a formal procedure for dealing with customer inquiries."

In 2010, online retailer Zappos.com took an even bigger hit of $1.6 million due to a pricing error on its sister site, 6pm.com. The company's reaction to the pricing error created brand awareness and loyalty that boosted sales well beyond what was lost during those six hours. "We will be honoring purchases that took place on 6pm.com during our mess up," wrote Aaron Magness, director of brand marketing and business development, on the Zappos.com blog.

Indeed, mistakes are an inevitable and unavoidable part of work. In both cases, leaders learned from and capitalized on those mistakes.

Go Ahead, Mess Up

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer conducted an experiment working with two groups on a common fear—public speaking. Langer encouraged people in one group to intentionally make a mistake and incorporate it into their presentations. She told members of the other group to simply do their best. It turns out that people in the "mistake" group enjoyed themselves more and received a higher rating from the audience than those in the other group. This suggests that embracing inevitable mistakes calms people and allows them to perform better.

Jill Nelson, founder of Ruby Receptionists, a virtual reception service in Portland, Ore., says fear of making mistakes should be a primary concern for managers. "At Ruby," Nelson says, "we found the fear of making mistakes would sometimes inhibit the true potential of our receptionists, so we stopped pointing out every mistake. Now, we keep a record of all mistakes, review them regularly, and only address them directly with the person when there's a trend or an opportunity to change the way we do things."

Nelson acknowledges that the ability to deal with risk and the occasional mistake is the basis of increased responsibility. "The highest-paying jobs at Ruby aren't necessarily the most grueling," she says. "Rather, they are the positions of those whose mistakes could cause the most harm. Being comfortable with the risk of making a mistake is essential for positions of high accountability." Ruby Receptionists was recently named the No. 2 Best Company to Work For in Oregon by Oregon Business magazine and has been ranked among the fastest-growing companies in the state four years running by Portland Business Journal.

It could be that organizations that embrace the mistake mentality have a competitive advantage. "There is a view among leaders that employees who are prepared to push the boundaries and sometimes make a mistake are more creative than those that do not," Garcea says. "In one of my client software companies, I observed leaders of software engineers actively encouraging mistake sharing. In this organization, employees who make a mistake had to bring in 'mistake cakes' the following day to mark their mistake and to share their learning with their colleagues. Leaders who encourage the sharing and learning of mistakes tend to be committed to building a learning organization."

In my firm, I have employees talk about their small mistakes at weekly staff meetings. We discuss the mistakes and what the employees learned from them. The sharing of this information sends the message that it's OK to make a low-stakes mistake—as long as you learn from it and share your lesson with others.

Regardless of the specific industry, companies need employees who can demonstrate learning agility, and this includes tolerance of risk, ability to sidestep the paralyzing effects of perfectionism and the capacity to bounce back from low-stakes errors. People with high learning agility naturally believe that the learning that follows mistakes can actually help them and their teams.

As you encourage this behavior among your team members, you create a safe environment for risk-taking that can spark innovation and add financial value to the organization.

The author is managing director of Positive Acorn and author of Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching (Wiley, 2010) and the forthcoming The Courage Quotient (Jossey-Bass).

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