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Mistakes can be a Marvellous Source of Innovation in a Professionally Safe Workplace

Posted by Stephen Parry on Sep 23, 2019 1:16:39 PM

Blame is an interesting area of psychology, a legally authorised social mechanism, and a fairly baffling Lightbulb and Crumpled Paperhuman quirk. Philosophers and theorists have competing ideas about what constitutes blame and its underpinning mechanisms. However, the philosopher Tognazzini (2014) says that blame “is a negative evaluative judgement that implies responsibility.” This is a good generalisation of what blame involves, and the keyword here is negative.

If there is one thing that is widely known to sap motivation, brew discourse, and dissolve morale, it is negativity. Creating a professionally safe culture is crucial for all aspects of an organisation – its bottom line and the innovation and creativity of employees and managers.


Very few great innovations occur without risk. Risk gives individuals time to explorecreative experimentation, which is how the Post-it® was invented, or the risk of attempting the impossible, which is why man has walked on the moon. Innovative success requires trial and error, and for this a blame-free environment is fertile ground.

Post Its Problem and Solution

A Culture of Learning

Developmental psychologists assert that humans learn through trial, error, and experimentation. Our brains are hardwired to learn from mistakes to the degree that research has shown that “making mistakes – correctly – is a powerful way to accelerate learning and increase competitiveness.”

By correctly, researchers Schoemaker and Gunther are referring to the positive outcomes that can be achieved by constructively critiquing errors in order to understand what went wrong and how to learn from the error. This can only be done when slip-ups are viewed as a valuable window into organisational mechanics.

A Blame-Free Environment is the Antidote to Enforced Accountability

Accountability is a prized asset within organisational culture. However, it is often elusive, because after all, when the benefit to owning up to a mistake is reprimand and social punishment, there is minimal incentive to be truthful.  Accountability is usually associated with finding the one person to blame.  Unfortunately, little is said about it when things go right.

When employees work in a low-blame, professionally safe environment, they are more likely to feel relaxed about transparency. This is helpful on many different levels. For instance, an employee who has the confidence to say that they are struggling with a task is unlikely to upset timescales by trying to press on regardless.

This type of transparent communication is vital if managers are to understand the progression of a project and to identify areas for professional development. This can only be achieved when there is an environment of positive learning rather than fear. Hence, trust between managers and employees is crucial for improving accountability and professional safety.

Infusing Realism and Resilience

Mistakes - everyone makes them. This is a basic part of being human and is a crucial element in the learning process, something we should treasure. This sociocultural reality though is often glossed over in organisational discourse where perfection is the goal.

When teams are infused with a realistic understanding that there are ups and downs in every aspect of a project, resilience through empowerment is the result. Resilience and empowerment are starting to be recognised as two of the most powerful factors in success. Fuelling strength by positive reinforcement and trust is a simple yet unbeatable strategy.

Banishing Blame from the Workplace

Blame is something that many accept as an important element of society. It certainly has important roles to play in understanding cause and effect and making sense of the world. However, an environment where blame is allowed to casually blossom stifles important areas of development and growth.

For organisations that wish to embrace innovation, problem-solving, and critical thinking, mistakes are a vital element of the positive learning process. When blame is banished, productivity is unlocked.

If you would like to have a discussion about creating a blame-free culture in your organisation, please get in touch. 


Topics: Change Leadership, Work Climate, Business Tips, Adaptive Business, business agility, Psychologically Safe Workplace

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