Why it’s vital to respect and recognize mistakes

Finding fault is not leading. Assigning blame is not correcting the issue.

Over the years I have noticed the common response to mistakes or breakdowns in organizations is “whose fault is it?” Punishment is to follow.

Over time people learn to:
  • Avoid mistakes over taking calculated risks
  • Hide their mistakes, so nothing is gained, and the person becomes more burdened by their deceit
  • Have an unconscious preoccupation with assigning blame thereby reinforcing the above
Organizations have a preoccupation for punishing mistakes, rather than respecting them, allowing them, and learning from them.

How might this unfold in real life?

In my freshman year of college, during Christmas break, I was hitchhiking to Mississippi.

About 20 cold, wet, and tiring hours into the trip, I found myself at a coffee shop counter in Jackson, Mississippi weary and trying to get warm.

I was sitting next to a few coveralled working guys. I hear one ask, “did you hear about Jessie? Stanley fired him!”

I then overheard why he was fired and it stuck with me to this day.

“Aw, they had him working on rig 12 a few days ago, his hand slipped, and he dropped his 24” pipe wrench down the well hole and jammed the drill lift. Stanley called him in and fired him! Of course, Jessie protested, ‘it was an accident! It was dark, cold, wet and oily and it was just an accident.’ Stan told him he didn’t care. It cost the company a couple of days production on 12 and thousands of dollars to get the pipe wrench out! Stan then told Jessie, ‘here’s your wrench, pack your tools, pick up your check and clear out!’

The man continued, “What did Jessie do? He picked up his tools, got his check, then threw the pipe wrench back down 12 and cleared out!”

I was dog-tired, cold and yet, my spirits were suddenly uplifted. I chuckled all day.

A bit of a dramatic example, yet it underscores the cost of punishing mistakes.

The episode left me with an appreciation of the power in forgiving and learning from mistakes and accidents.

There is an enormous amount of evidence that punishing mistakes is costly to organizations.

Punishing mistakes stifles creativity and creates an environment of fear.

Respecting and recognizing mistakes creates trust, safety, fresh thinking and growth.

Personal Advantages to honoring and respecting mistakes:
  • Averts the need to continue to defend a difficult or incorrect position.
  • Increases leadership credibility.
  • Avoids additional mistakes trying to cover up or “adjust” for the original mistake.
  • Reduces personal stress and tension.
  • Provides a “reset” from others in both personal and professional relationships.
  • When you take responsibility for a mistake on-behalf of others involved, it builds loyalty.

It is worth noting, negligence is not a mistake, it’s very different and often requires a strong response.


“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”
—Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM

In building High-Reliability Organizations, Mark Chassin asserts you must get rid of intimidating behavior.

Intimidating behavior is not always overt, it can be as subtle as a look, it can occur as indifference or dismissing suggestions. I know we all have experiences with these behaviors.

Engagement generates more engagement

Three decades of surveys by Gallop tell us that only about a third of all managers are engaged, and the statistic is even less for employees.

However, they also say the employees that work for engaged managers are 50% more likely to also be engaged.

Key qualities exhibited by those managers are: they listen, they are understanding and helpful when mistakes occur, they endeavor to make their team better, and help them learn from mistakes.

Now think about yourself. What is the impact on yourself when you take a punitive approach to a mistake?

Do you beat yourself up, or become judgmental of someone?

Compare that experience to taking an understanding approach to mistakes, being accountable, and looking for the learning. What is that impact on you?

How many Jessies have you sent packing, literally or emotionally? If you have children, what would they say?

Are you interested in being a High-Reliability Organization?

Start by building a culture that honors and respects the power of mistakes. Encourage people to speak up about them. Urge people who make mistakes to teach what they learned to the rest of the organization.

Consider this, a mistake undisclosed is a portal to another mistake!

Further reading on this topic:

6 Reasons why mistakes are important 

Are Mistakes Valuable Thingsforsucess

Mistakes grow your brain

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