How to create great work environments

(Note: In a series of posts, now called readers choice, I’ll write about whatever people submit and vote for. If you dig this, let me know if the comments, and submit your ideas and votes).

The actual question submitted was:

How to create environments that encourage people to make mistakes and learn from them?

This is easy. It goes on every day in every decent classroom around the world.

What this question is really asking is how can the person in charge create an atmosphere where learning is rewarded.  Nearly every manager or leader talks about this, but rarely is it true.

There are four things people get wrong that makes this seem harder than it is.

  1. The person in power defines the culture through their behavior. If the bossman fires people for making a small mistake, people will hide mistakes and obsess about avoiding them, making creativity and innovation unlikely. If the bossman instead sees failures as learning moments, and takes time to teach solutions, or asks the mistake maker what they learned and how it can be avoided next time, people will feel there is room for them to learn. Many people in power are not self-aware enough to see the gap between what they say, and what they do, despite the fact people respond only to the latter. Most managers are more punitive and risk-averse than they think they are.
  2. Everyone must understand the different kinds of mistakes.  The word mistake is loaded. We’re taught to believe mistakes are bad, and people who make them are evil and horrible. But if you are asked to solve a challenging problem you won’t solve it on the first try. Or second. Or maybe even your 50th. Your first few attempts will naturally fail. This is a kind of mistake, or failure, but a necessary one, and one no customer will see. This is useful failure. It represents an opportunity to learn, or eliminate a reasonable possibility others would eventually try. The person in power has to communicate the difference between interesting or necessary mistakes, and useless ones, and their responses have to be appropriate (See How to learn from your mistakes).
  3. The person in power has to care about employees long term. If I expect to manage you for 30 years, I want you to learn. I want you to grow. I want you to be as potent as possible in the long run, and I’d be willing to make short term sacrifices to make that possible (Paying for training, for books, coaching you, pushing to get you interesting assignments with the VP, etc.) If I don’t expect you to work for me for long, or see zero potential for you, then I’d never be willing to make that sacrifice. I’d always think you were already at 100% of what you are capable of, and have ZERO new to learn. Part of what defines the culture around a leader is their answer to this question: how good do I think the people I manage can possibly be? And how much do I care about getting them there? If they behave with long term care, odds go up everyone will teach, and care for, each other as well.
  4. Everyone needs proper expectations. An easy question I ask as a consultant, when people tell me of a problem they’ve having with someone at work, is this: Have you talked to them about it? 60-70% of the time they say no. If you feel your boss doesn’t let you learn from your mistakes, it’s up to you to ask for more space, making the argument you’ll be more productive/smarter/creative or whatever he wants from you if he treats you differently. And promise to prove it. Perhaps you can negotiate for only certain tasks to be freer than others. But if you never give the feedback, or never explicitly state what you want, odds are slim you’ll ever get it. If your manager is unwilling to ever give you what you want, then accept it or move on.

If nothing else, remember back to the best learning experiences you had, in school or in work. What were those environments like, and what did the teachers or bosses do that others didn’t? Leave it the comments – I’d like to learn about them :)

Also see:

10 Responses to “How to create great work environments”

  1. Sean Crawford

    I’m pleased to work for a darned good agency that supplies community support for people with disabilities.

    The CEO has often said, “We are a problem solving agency.” This alone produces a non fearful creativity. Our staff turnover is low. To take a worst case: If someone innocently abuses a client then the worker is talked to and brought to an understanding. We are a for-profit and and so it is easy to fire yet people, yet they are not afraid.

    I am still chuckling at saying “boss” to my supervisor. She wrinkled her face and said, “I’m not your boss!” I laughed to say, “Well of course we collaborate as professionals, but when I am asking for holiday time, when I have a vested interest, then I call you boss.”

    If people understand then there is less need to control them with paperwork. We have little red tape compared to other agencies, and my CEO “pulls a Robert Townsend” (author of Up the Organization) by having every proposed new form sent to her to fill out for herself before it is adopted by the agency.

    When the government bureaucrats in the capital proposed that at various levels in our agency we fill out a “no abuse this month” form, every single month, then my CEO, in problem-solving-talking mode, got the government scrap the idea, to agree that it would make sense to fill out a form only if there was abuse.

    My work requires a lot of concepts, which is reinforced by talking and problem solving. At my workplace, then, we don’t have Darth Vader’s tired minions going through the motions but rather people who, as the feminists would say, “get it.” Not self-righteous, but professional between the ears and, yes, righteous.

  2. Yoga

    A few things a manager could nurture in his/her team is the following:

    1. Getting ahead of the problem. Problem solving should not be the goal. This ofcorse comes from refined learning and keeping track of all past issues and resolutions.

    2. Reward mentors in the group appropriately. This will automatically promote learning culture.

    3. Make sure “system issues” are not seen as “people issues”. As Peter Senge seems to mention in Fifth Discipline (read it long time back, so don’t clearly remember): Lots of times systemic issues are not seen clearly and consequently incorrect and useless (corrective) actions are taken to solve them.

  3. Jussi Mononen

    A manager should also concentrate on removing impediments that prevent working and focusing on giving challenging tasks. Conveyor-belt work is a real motivation killer.

  4. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    Obviously we don’t want to encourage people to make mistakes, but we do want them to learn from them when they do.

    To your first point, the leader cannot punish failed experiments. It doesn’t mean that you get fired, you may just get a bad review or get sent to run the Siberian division. But if failed experiments lead to any punishment, the message is clear – don’t do it.

    But I think HOW we fail makes a difference to. This is why I use the word experimentation. Experiments are structured with the idea in ADVANCE that we don’t really KNOW what’s going to happen. We just have a hypothesis, or an educated guess. We expect to get a positive result, but don’t know. Not only does the process help you learn, but it helps manage expectations that it is a learning process.

    I also think that the “boss” needs to set the example. Most I see are willing to do experiments and have them fail. But they keep them private. It’s not always that they are afraid of failure; sometimes they think sharing = bragging. But if the boss doesn’t share what they are trying, and failing at, then it is all hypocrisy.

    Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, said “Failures are not something to be avoided. You want to have them happen as quickly as you can so you can make progress quickly.”

    Culture + process can make that environment work.

  5. Jack Christopher

    Scott, improviser have to explicitly know how to create a pro-social environment or else a scene doesn’t work:

    (Hard to find a non commercial link.)

    Actually there are several improvisers that consult teaching teamwork among other things. I’ve found improv acting incredible insightful for my public speaking skills. Really improv fundamentally changed my views on communication and relationships.

  6. Mike Nitabach

    In managing a scientific research laboratory, #2 is by far the most important. The vast majority of experiments fail to be informative, but that does not mean that they were mistakes.

    A mistake is if you fail to actually perform the experiment you set out to do because–for example–you just carelessly left out a key ingredient. This is bad, and needs to be minimized.

    However, if you perform the experiment you set out to, and it ends up being uninformative for substantive reasons that you were unknown before performing the experiment, and you learn those substantive reasons through the experiment, then it is not a mistake. These are the kinds of “failed” experiments that are the necessary prerequisite to eventually achieving the successful informative experiment.

  7. Leanna Gingras

    I have no idea where this came from, but I love this thought: “What if I invest in training them and they leave?” “What if you don’t train them and they STAY?” Even if a manager isn’t looking 30 years down the horizon, it’s not good to operate under that mentality for even 6 months.

    As for tactics, my old boss used to have weekly “Eff-ups and FTWs” discussions. Everyone was expected to share not just their wins, but also their miserable failures. This forced us to face our mistakes and analyze them, but everyone else was also able to learn from them. It was also a very clear message that this was a supportive environment.



  1. […] How to create great work environments Great environments encourage people to make mistakes and learn from them. Here are the four arenas that matter: 1. The person in power defines the culture through their behavior 2. Everyone must understand the different kinds of mistakes 3. The person in power has to care about employees long term 4. Everyone has to properly set expectations […]

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