3 min read

Fear Factor: Your business will suffer if employees are afraid of making mistakes

Fear Factor: Your business will suffer if employees are afraid of making mistakes

Are your employees afraid of making mistakes?

If you said that you don’t think so, how confident are you that employees would say the same?
Winston Churchill’s words, “Perfection is the enemy of progress,” are as true as ever. Workplace behaviours and policies that create fear of making mistakes reinforce the impossible standard of perfection, which can undermine employee engagement, well-being, innovation and progress in your organization.

Employees fear taking risks when they hear, experience, or observe punishment for errors. The benefit of sticking their necks out for a possible win doesn’t stand a chance against the fear of potential negative consequences and the impact on their reputation, career progress, or job security.

A culture of fear also has a direct impact on the well-being of employees. They are more likely to experience worry, anxiety, sleep disruption, interpersonal conflict, and isolation.

To err is human

In psychologically healthy and safe workplaces, leaders understand that humans are not perfect and allow for errors in how work gets done and goals are achieved. And, in high-performing workplaces, mistakes are seen as opportunities even when it’s inconvenient; they are fuel for learning and innovation.

This Psychology Today article says, “Mistakes are inevitable in life and learning to appreciate them enables enlightenment and growth.” Conversely, Fear of Making Mistakes (FOMM) can:

  • Stop a person from learning and growing

  • Cause people to give up or not engage in a behavior

  • Make people intolerant of fallibility in themselves and in loved ones

  • Stop people from living their fullest lives

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas A. Edison

You can increase the chances of failure when you handle it poorly

Too many employees go to work each day fearful of making a mistake. Regardless of the sector, fear of not being good enough or making mistakes can harm the workplace experience. One study found that 52 percent of U.K. employees fear being wrong, severely impacting their decision-making and choices. 

From a behavioural science perspective, how you treat mistakes can increase the rate of failure in your workplace. Human survival has evolved by avoiding danger. When stories circulate about poor treatment for making a mistake (e.g., reprimanded, corrective action, termination, demotion), they create fear. Employees who operate in this climate are more likely to make unnecessary errors.

The fear of making a mistake drives most fear. Edward Deming, the father of the total quality management movement, is famous for saying, “Drive out fear so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”

Not all mistakes are the same

There are different kinds of mistakes. One way to think about an error is whether it is blameworthy. A blameworthy mistake is when an employee is trained on a procedure, such as lockouts, but intentionally ignores protocol and gets hurt, hurts someone else, or has a near-miss.

A non-blameworthy mistake, better thought of as a learning opportunity, is when an employee takes the initiative to resolve a problem, uses a logical approach, and ends up with a less desirable outcome.
And sometimes, employees you know and trust to do good work inadvertently make mistakes due to unforeseen circumstances or pure oversight.

Whatever the case, the way you manage the situation is critical.

In Dr. Amy Edmondson’s newest book, The Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Intelligent Failure, she purports that failure is an outcome that deviates from expected and desired results. She teaches that some failures to achieve defined standards, procedures, and policies are due to errors. Others are not. There are three types of failure: 

  1. Simple failures (i.e., human errors). The root cause is the person knows how to do it right, but the process doesn’t go right for some reason.

  2. Complex failures (i.e., human accidents). Factors come together uniquely despite the reasonably familiar contexts to prevent them.

  3. Intelligent failures (i.e., opportunities for learning and growth). Undesired results are due to trying something new.

Tips for leaders to drive out fear of making mistakes

Edmondson says that to “fail well,” leaders must be clear on what success looks like and create the path to get there. Below are a few steps to get you started.

  • Clarify what degree of risk is appropriate to experiment to achieve better outcomes.

  • Create a safe space for sharing ideas — Encourage employees to share their ideas to solve complex problems without fear of judgment. This can drive out fear and help employees feel valued and safe when taking risks.

  • Talk about mistakes and learning — Make it clear that taking risks, trying to solve problems, and making the best decision possible with the information available are accepted and seen as essential for helping the organization move forward. Reinforce that mistakes happen, and learning from them is critical to avoid making them again.

  • Train leaders to deal with mistakes — Do not assume all leaders know how to deal with mistakes. To build trust, employees must see that leaders are prepared to support them and express empathy when they have a setback due to making a mistake. You can reinforce and normalize that mistakes happen. Mistakes are inconvenient but a part of learning. There is no escaping this reality.

When you promote taking informed risks and show others how to regroup when errors happen, you build a learning environment focused on excellence rather than perfection.

Get to know the author – Dr. Bill Howatt



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