I might be a mean parent. My daughter recently got scraped up doing something outside. Instead of diving for the first aid kit and offering sympathy, I commented on how cool the scrapes were.  Okay, maybe I’m not mean, but I know that minor scrapes and bruises show that she is active. Hopefully, she is learning from small mistakes and accidents.  I hope that my reactions to those bumps and bruises encourage her to keep trying things that are challenging for her.

Mistakes are Important

As with many leadership concepts, this seems to be common sense.  We all understand that mistakes are learning opportunities.  But one of the complaints I hear the most consistently from employees is that they are afraid to make even minor mistakes.  They say they “get yelled at” or that their supervisor “gets all over them” for things they see as minor.  For the sake of this post, let’s assume that the employees are right.  That even when they make small mistakes they get criticized, reprimanded or disciplined.  What does that do for the culture of their organization?

In most settings we want employees to feel comfortable taking risks within their skill set and experience level.  We want them looking for innovations, try new approaches and improving outcomes or processes.  Mistakes, in a supportive environment, increase confidence, learning and job performance.  Many of us further along in our career remember mistakes we made early on and how good supervisor helped us use the experience to grow.

When Employees are Afraid to Make Mistakes

When employees are afraid of being criticized for making mistakes, they take fewer risks and shy away from things that are within their responsibilities. It may look different across industries, but overly cautious employees slow down work completion, turn in mediocre work, and when it is bad enough, begin to look for new opportunities in different settings.

It’s also important to remember here that perception is what drives these feelings.  As a leader, you may believe you are giving constructive criticism, but if your employees feel you are being overly critical or overreacting to small things, it will begin to show in their willingness to take on additional or risky assignments.

 Why is it so Difficult?

If we all know that we need to allow employees to make mistakes, why is it so difficult to let it happen and support them when it does? Most of us can come up with a list a mile long of why we intervene rather than allow employees to make mistakes.  Things I’ve heard from clients: “It’s too important of a sale.” “That machinery is way too expensive to let someone learn on the job.”  “It takes me longer to correct their work if I let them go.”  And many, many more.

These may be legitimate reasons to stop an employee from making a mistake, but in my experience, it often really comes down to lack of control or fear that the employee won’t do the task the EXACT same way. This is the case even when there is no real benefit to doing a task or project in a specific way.

Establish Parameters

So, how can both you and your employees figure out the level of risk that you are comfortable with them taking?  How will they know what is a reasonable mistake to make and what are those to avoid at all costs?  Talk about it.  Establish guidelines, communicate your expectations on things that need to be done exactly to procedure and where they have permission to experiment or innovate.  Provide structured practice and learning opportunities that allow for a level of failure that you can live with.

Organizations do better when employees are appropriately confident in their skills and know that they are supported in innovating and taking risks aligned with desired outcomes.

Jerritt Johnston is the Owner of True North Consultants, which promotes organizational, individual and team growth through challenging, fun and relevant activities and processes.  Contact us today to see how we can help with your nonprofit board or staff development.  True North is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.