When I am initially engaged by an organization to help them address leadership competency and skill deficiencies, I begin every engagement with a diagnostic, much like in medicine — a collection of data to identify the real and specific causes.
As part of that diagnostic, conducting interviews with employees is one of the most enjoyable and revealing functions I perform as a leadership consultant. While surveys may result in a greater volume of data, my experience is that one-on-one interviews provide significantly greater insight and depth to an organization’s leadership challenges.
Over the years, there is one question I ask during those interviews that have provided incredible insight into the organization’s culture, and I’ve also seen its link to employee engagement, employee satisfaction, and organizational performance:
“Tell me about what it’s like when you make a mistake or error in your organization?”
I ask this question in all my diagnostic interviews, from the individual contributor to senior staff level and everyone in-between. The results have been eye-opening. In reviewing the most common answers, I would place them in 3 buckets:
“A mistake? I do everything I can to hide it. We live in a zerotolerance culture.”
This response is, unfortunately, all too common. Many employees who reply this way go on to reveal their opinion that each known mistake negatively impacts their performance reviews, promotion chances, and increases pressure from their manager. When I dig in about how keeping these to themselves may result in others making the same mistakes, I might hear something like, “I do feel bad about that, but I just can’t risk it.” In my experience, the more common this response is in an organization, the more likely I am to see issues with undesirable turnover, poor performance, and a general attitude of mistrust and lack of collaboration
“If my boss knows or needs to know, that’s okay, but they usually will help me keep it between us.”
What’s interesting about this reply is that often, with additional discussion, it becomes clear that this approach usually is not applied equally or fairly. One employee told me, “My boss likes me and supports me, so I’m pretty fortunate. There are others they would not keep it quiet, especially if they are trying to get rid of them.” If this sounds like playing favorites, it most certainly is! When I hear examples like this, it is not uncommon to learn from the leaders that they “selectively” reveal errors of their employees, especially those they have deemed under-performers. While this logic may seem to make sense to a manager, it creates not only an environment of mistrust but often also fuels behind-the-scenes disgruntled employee group think/discussion, which becomes increasingly challenging for leaders. Leaders often have low performers that need to be managed; however, addressing the deficiencies in their performance should follow sound principles and processes, not rely on looking for and exploiting “Gotcha” moments.
“I’m not only encouraged by leadership to learn from it but we are also encouraged to share it with others to help them learn and grow.”
When this is a reply from one employee, my experience has been this will be the reply from most if not all. When asked, “Is that valuable?”, employees will excitedly share how they believe it:
- It’s rare to see management in organizations encourage learning from mistakes
- Creates comfort knowing they are not alone or fearing ostracism for making mistakes
- Benefits them by learning from others’ mistakes and helps them avoid the same ones
- Fosters an environment of trust
- Significantly increases their trust and respect for the leaders who are also willing to admit and share their own mistakes.
In organizations where this has been the case, I have seen a stronger culture, better performance, and greater employee longevity. One employee told me, “I can’t imagine working anywhere else because of this.”
So, ask yourself, “How would our employees answer that question?”
Pat D’Amico has over 30 years of management and leadership experience, including combat tours in the US Army and over 25 years in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries. His functional leadership roles have included sales, marketing, recruiting, commercial operations, national accounts, and training. His consulting practice is focused on leadership development and Executive Coaching. Pat holds a Master’s in Education and an Executive Coaching Certification from UC Berkeley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.