The one culture shift that can make a good workplace great

By the time I started my fourth year working for the government in the communications department, I knew I didn’t necessarily want my five year pin. I knew it was a great place to work. I knew I had done some of the best writing, relationship-building, and learning of my career. I worked with some fantastic, hard-working, and creative communications professionals. That was the best thing about it, working with a team of communications people, most of whom are much smarter and more creative than I.

I saw first-hand how government works, how conscientious public servants are, how policymaking is difficult, multifaceted, and better left to professionals who have years of experience behind them. I enjoyed it – not every single minute of it, but eighty per cent of the time I enjoyed a meaningful, productive, and at times fun workplace.

But I knew I wanted to experience my profession from outside government, and outside a government town, at least for a while.

So, in my next job, I spent five years contributing to open online learning and student services in the post-secondary sector. I had a unique, system-wide view of British Columbia’s colleges, universities, and institutes. I got to do some really cool stuff that I’m very proud of, with people I was stoked to call colleagues and friends.

But you know what made those two jobs among the best experiences of my life?  Permission to make mistakes.

The one culture shift that can make a good workplace greatI love learning. I thrive on taking on new projects, learning a new skill, delving into a new product, technology, or method. Learning is only possible when you’re OK with making mistakes – OK with yourself making mistakes, with others making mistakes, and feeling safe and supported enough to make mistakes and learn from them.

Others call this “failing forward.”

Of course, a lot of little mistakes is probably better than making one honking big one, and there are ways of setting up systems so you learn (or fail forward) in smaller, manageable, non-catastrophic chunks. But even then, making a big mistake would probably be a lesson you’ll never forget. Here’s my example:

In government, as with any position of responsibility, where people with power are counting on you to provide them with quick, accurate information, the very first rule is “no surprises, and don’t embarrass the minister.”

One of my favourite bosses ever was one I had when I first worked for the economic development ministry. She would say: “Don’t worry about the small stuff. This isn’t surgery, or a trip to the moon. No one’s going to die from a typo.”

(Aside: If you’ve ever read astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield’s book, or are familiar with rocket science or flying higher jets, you’ll know astronaut/pilot training is all about making mistakes in simulations, over and over again, until you get it right without raising your heart rate even one beat per minute, before you get to the real life-and-death deal.)

My mistake was more than a typo. I wrote in a speech for the minister that the GDP in B.C. had risen by something like 8 per cent the previous year. I got that statistic from a table in a StatsCan report. All you economists know what my mistake was: that number was not adjusted for inflation. I should have known to look in the adjusted-for-inflation column (it was more along the lines of 3 per cent). After all, I have a masters degree in social sciences, and am very well acquainted with statistical analysis.

In my haste I hadn’t caught it (and neither did any of the six people who must have read that same piece as it went through the approvals process). Sure enough, it got into the minister’s hands. He was the one who caught it, phoned me, and asked for the adjusted number.

I was mortified.

Some politicians would have just read the erroneous information – not because they aren’t smart, but because they are so busy and work so hard they simply haven’t got time, or they don’t have a background in the subject area themselves and rely on public servants to provide them with accurate statistics. Some people would have been angry, and would have let me and my boss know about it.

Not this one. Both the minister and my boss were pretty chill about the whole thing. Based on my reliable work history, they trusted me not to do the same thing again. No harm was done, and we moved on. It was no big deal – except to me – as evidenced by the fact that I still remember that incident to this day.

The fact that my mistake was no big deal in the grand scheme of things made me want to work even harder for my boss, to write better speeches for that cabinet minister, and to brush up on my macroeconomics on my own time. I would be writing a very different story if I had been called on the carpet and berated for making a mistake.

However, I’ve learned letting go of the fear of making mistakes is tough, and those who are most hard on themselves are the most likely to take it out on others. As soon as I was able to give myself a break, and embrace mistakes as “failing forward,” that’s when I was able to myself be a better boss to people I supervised.

So go ahead. Make a mistake. Allow others to do the same. See what you can learn from it.