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Go Forth and Make Mistakes, Fearlessly!

January 20, 2014, 12:00 AM
Mistake

It's the "Election Night, Part 1" episode of Showtime's hit show "The Newsroom." 

The fictional Atlantic Cable News staff is in a complete funk after the team reported on an alleged war crime that turned out to be a hoax. How will the news team gain back the public's trust? It's Election Night, and so the news director, Charlie Skinner, delivers what begins as an inspirational speech about how our elections are the envy of the world. Skinner's speech ends, however, with this admonition: "Top to bottom, no mistakes. If you make a mistake, run out of the building as fast as you can, and keep running until you hit water. Then swim. Here we go!"

As the stressful evening wares on, Skinner appears again, waiving an employment application for the New York Department of Sanitation, which he intends to give to the first person who makes a mistake. 

This strategy of management by fear might be warranted in a number of real-life situations in which the goal of a team is to be mistake-proof. The news business, for instance, has next to zero tolerance for mistakes. Under these conditions, one would expect employees to go to just about any length to avoid messing up, unless they really wanted to be measured for a sanitation uniform. But just don't expect any of them to take risks, and don't expect innovation to happen. 

We know that when people are happier and more engaged at work they are more creative and more productive. So under normal circumstances, what can be done to nourish employees' work lives?

Teresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, studies what really goes on inside the hearts and minds of people at work, and offers her suggestions in a lesson on Big Think Edge, the only forum on YouTube designed to help you get the skills you need to be successful in a rapidly changing world. 

Amabile's suggestions include offering respect/recognition, encouragement, the opportunity to affiliate, to have comrades, and provide the sense that you actually care about them. 

Let's break down one of them.

"Of all the catalysts to progress that we studied one of the most important is having a mechanism for learning from problems," Amabile says. Let's say someone tried something new and it failed. Amabile says the best companies understand this is why we call it an experimentation, "because we don’t know exactly what the right answer is, but we want to support people in trying something new."

That attitude of learning from mistakes, or learning from problems, is the opposite of what happens in "The Newsroom" episode described above. Amabile calls that type of management style "the inhibitor" because it makes people afraid to do anything out of the ordinary. "In the worst teams and the worst companies they’d be punished for doing something that didn’t work out," Amabile says, "so everyone tried to be very conservative, very much on the safe side and innovation gradually just dwindled down."

Sign up for a free trial subscription on Big Think Edge and watch Amabile's lesson here:

For expert video content to inspire, engage and motivate your employees, visit Big Think Edge

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Go Forth and Make Mistakes,...

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