Thursday, January 8, 2015

Make it Safe to Mess-Up

"The blood clot almost killed him," a  medical student told me. "Hospital protocol required the man receive heparin, an anti-coagulant, upon admittance. So I didn't even check to see if he had received his doses. Except, in this case he wasn't given the heparin. The man clotted. It was my fault. He almost died." What did the med student do?

  Anonymously, she reported the mistake. Hospitals, she explained, have a system that encourages reporting of mistakes. Reveal the mistake, but don't tell them who you are. 

Her story made me think about a few of my own work mistakes.

I didn't send an invoice on time to a funder.

I wrote a proposal the funder didn't like.

I designed a day of learning and no one showed up.

As a result of my mistakes, no one died. But they are misses. Money is at stake. Quality is at stake. Our ability to continue work is at risk. These mistakes can't be ignored. The question is, is it safe to say, "I missed the mark?"

I don't need a system of anonymous reporting. Like most human beings, I wake up in the morning and try to make a positive difference at work. I bring my best. I work very hard –most days are 12 hour days. When I miss the mark, I'd like to feel that it’s safe to talk about and learn so I can do better next time.

During my career as an educator, I've worked in many organizations in the past. Some of those places claimed they were "learning organizations" where you can fail forward. And some places actually are safe places to mess up.    

Here are the 7 practices that separate the talkers from the doers. These practices may be seen in organizations – really in people. What do you think about the seven practices of bosses who make it safe to say "I missed?"

1. Make Humans Primary. 
The person sitting in front of you is first. "How are you feeling about this miss? What do you need?" "I care about you." (It really is ok to say that to an employee). The work comes next.

2. Genuinely use "we."
 Instead of "you missed," lead with, and mean it, "What could we have done
differently?" "What systems can we put into place to make a difference next time?" "I" sentences will emerge.

3. Honor the good.
 90% of the time the work is right on. Don't ignore the good and only put energy into the misses. Don't be afraid to lift up the good work and spend time thinking through what made something work so well.  Celebrate.

4. Move your sacred tongue. 
Words matter-as the poem says:
"I feel so sentenced by your words, I feel so judged and sent away… words are windows, or they're walls. They sentence us or set us free." (Ruth Bebermeyer) from Non-Violent Communication, A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg

5. Model Mistakes.
 Bosses need to say I'm sorry. I missed. I tried to do something and for this reason it didn't work. I'll try again. When a boss can't get that out of his or her mouth, "I'm sorry, I messed up," it is not safe for an employee to do it either.

6. Rule with Middot (virtues), not emotions.
In word and deed let virtue trump judgment, jealousy, and the need to gossip. For example, don't jump to conclusions. Give employees the benefit of the doubt.  Lead with questions and curiosity. "Let's understand what happened."

7.  Support.
With reflection, needs for growth or learning are identified. Provide support – a course, a mentor, more supervision, observation of others... Each adult can identify, "What I need to do better." Then provide it. Then the cycle of trying, missing, trying, can include real learning.

I am an employee who has experienced both the lack of, and the benefit of these 7 practices, and I'm also a supervisor who tries very hard to embody the 7. Sometimes I miss. 

When I do miss, I know that folks won’t die like the man with the blood clot, but perhaps a little of their spirit or their ability to feel safe and take risks dies. That's a big loss, and for that I'm sorry,  and will try again.