The world has become a scary place, some would argue that the world has always been scary, but for some reason the combination of the constant news flow and social media has created a world that is unkind and hostile. We see the fear in business, and we see it in working culture. Companies become increasingly anxious of errors because our errors are now often open for the whole world to see. Organizations have crumbled under the weight of fear-based leadership and fear-based culture. Yet when we speak of the opposite, the “fail culture” it tends to create even more fear: Benign error is still a foreign concept for most of us.
Error before and error now
It is ingrained deeply in us, that failing is bad. We are taught this as children, and it is reinforced in our adult life. Let’s think of industrial production: Back in the day errors would lead to breakdowns in a production line, which could lead to breakdowns in an entire factory and by extension, the breakdown of an entire society fed by the work of that factory. Failure was costly. Failure was scary. Repetition was rewarded, redundancy was encouraged. However, there has been a monumental shift in this: The rise of digital technology has made failure an art form and errors a way of life, an opportunity for improvement. With digital technology we can simulate before we do, we can test before we break anything real, and we can assess the consequences without anyone having to risk their health or job. Despite this, the zero-error culture lives on in us and plagues our organizations still. Why?
What the data tells us
In her studies as a researcher Brené Brown has studied why we struggle with trust both personally and in organizations. Her studies show clearly, that the overwhelming feeling that inhibits trust is shame. For years, when mistakes have been made, we have been preoccupied with finding who is to blame. And whenever an error happens, we are quick to rush to solutions, instead of staying in the awkwardness of finding out what happened, what went wrong. It is partly to avoid the blame, but also because we are hardwired to put resources into reassuring each other that everything is fine, instead of spending time on cleaning up in the processes that caused the error. But the cleanup should be the priority. Cleaning up and doing retrospectives drive the digital world. An example from technology is Artificial Intelligence: The AI cannot become smarter without experiencing errors – it needs to see the error, acknowledge it and use it as a base to avoid making the error again. The AI doesn’t point fingers at the person that made the mistake, it doesn’t feel shame about the error, it will not try to hide the error. Of course, we should not aspire to become artificial, and we should also not aspire to fail, but the intelligence part is worth taking note of: We need to make learning from errors more than an aspiration, but something we acknowledge when it happens in real life without pointing fingers – but instead opening our minds to understanding why it happened.
Courage and shame
Opening our minds to understanding errors requires one simple thing from us, but this requirement will probably scare you: It is vulnerability. Many of us have been taught that courage and vulnerability are opposites. We were taught to go to the offices with our suits as an armor and let no one see when we failed. But it turns out, that this is not courage. In a world with increased transparency and accountability, being vulnerable is courageous. Saying “I don’t know” is the bravest act in the new world we live in. Being curious and generous when we explore an error is bravery. When we say “you need to be open about your mistakes, so that we can learn from them” to people that have only ever experienced the blaming game, they will nod their heads in the meeting, but not live this vulnerability in practice. They will reproduce and repeat because it is safe to them. This means we lose out on the greatest ideas – they hide among all the bad ideas we are afraid to share.
It is painful, but also contagious
As leaders, and here I do not only speak of managers, but of leaders in the sense of people that have impact on an organization, we must lean hard into our vulnerability. We must show, that owning our faults does not mean that we are faulty as people. That is the key difference between shame and guilt. Shame tells us, that because we made an error, we are not worthy of the responsibility of our jobs – whereas guilt makes us admit that we made a bad decision, but that we are still worthy of trust and responsibility. This difference is crucial to the future of how we are going to be working together. This transparency, Brown’s studies tell us, is the key to innovation and a result of an organization where being vulnerable. An organization that is always locked in a defensive position, will lose out on profit and ingenuity. Being ingenious doesn’t come from our ability to keep standing, but by our ability to rise again, after an error is made. That is a truly resilient culture. That is a culture our business partners can trust. And the most beautiful thing is, that the data shows, that a culture of vulnerability is just as contagious as a culture of shame. We have the luxury of failing. It will no longer make local societies die out; it will no longer threaten our livelihoods. It will make us stronger.
Tips to be courageous and brave in your daily work:
- Try to stay in the awkwardness of admitting an error, or promise to circle back when you’re ready
- Refuse to sit at the cheap seats pointing fingers, criticizing those that try, and fail – that is not where leaders sit
- Refuse to take it personal when feedback comes from folks that don’t try new things, and fail themselves
- Don’t practice zero errors. Practice getting good at rising again after an error and learning from it
- Stop nodding “yes”, when you actually mean “no” and accept that it’s going to suck to disagree, but people will trust you more
- Acknowledge that you are not an error, just because you make errors. Don’t internalize guilt as shame.