To do their best work, to be innovative and productive, people need to feel safe. They need to know that they can tell the truth, take risks, and make a mistake without fear of punishment. The truth is that mistakes are going to happen no matter what you do, but when you cultivate an environment of safety, where your team admits when things go wrong and takes the time to learn from that, you’ll likely see productivity increase and mistakes decrease. Here are some ideas to help build a culture of safety.   

Welcome All Suggestions

Even if you’ve heard it before, or you’re sure the idea won’t work, welcome all ideas. Talk through the idea to see whether this person has a new approach that could make the formerly bad idea work better. Or, talk through why the idea didn’t work before to help them gain insight. If the idea is brand new, help the person develop it more – turning it around a few different ways to see whether it is really viable.

What’s the Harm in Trying

In my experience, it is all too common for ideas to never see the light of day because we let fear of failure stop them before they start. If you start from a space of curiosity, asking what the harm is in trying something, you can start to explore an idea more fully. Ask “what’s the worst that could happen?” and then work through that scenario.  Then explore “what’s the best that could happen?” If the potential risk is too impactful, or if the benefit is small, maybe this isn’t an idea you want to pursue, but you don’t often know until you work through scenarios.  And talking through these ideas collaboratively allows everyone involved to see the pros and cons. 

Measure It

Whenever you are implementing a new idea or changing something, think about how you are going to know whether it is working and how long you want to let the experiment run. Make sure that you allow enough time to really evaluate whether something is working. Too often, people stop right as the idea is about to take root. Having measurements can help you determine whether you can let the experiment run a little longer or pull the plug.

Set Boundaries

It seems counterintuitive, but I believe boundaries increase safety. Setting limits that everyone understands can give people freedom to experiment or create without worrying about going too far. Think about key values and customer impact to set these. For example, you could say that staff can experiment with a process, as long as the customer isn’t waiting longer for the service or the product than they’ve come to expect. Or, any idea we try must be in support of our team’s core values.

Talk About Failures

If you’ve ever worked in a well-run Agile team, you likely heard the mantra – fail early. In this mindset, finding out what doesn’t work and where NOT to invest is as valuable as working on what does work. When something doesn’t go according to plan, acknowledge it and talk it through. Review what happened and why, and talk about how things could go better. And then try again.

Do you foster an environment of psychological safety? How do you deal with mistakes and failures? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.