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The 1 Question -- and 3 Answers -- That Speak Volumes about Your Company's Culture

Development or punishment? How your organization reacts to mistakes can reveal a lot about its culture.

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When I am initially engaged by an organization to help it address deficiencies related to leadership competency and skills, 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. Although surveys might 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 has provided incredible insight into the organization’s culture, and I’ve also seen its link to employee engagement, employee satisfaction and organizational performance:

“What happens when you make a mistake or error in your organization?”

This question came out of work I was doing with an organization that already had a tremendous culture. Not only was the organization perpetually exceeding expectations, but the employees loved working there, were committed and loyal, and felt their leadership was truly looking out for their best interest. During a leadership development program with this company, we began discussing a recent business failure, and the managers in the room not only spoke freely about their less-than-optimal decision-making related to the situation, but also about the need to share the lessons learned with the larger organization. This struck me because, in my experience, managers typically are less than forthcoming even in one-on-one discussions to admit personal errors, much less in front of a large group of their peers.

As a result of this experience, I began asking the 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 three buckets:

Related: 3 Life-Changing Lessons To Learn From Your Failures

“A mistake? I do everything I can to hide it. We live in a zero-tolerance 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 might 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 for, 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 might seem to make sense to a manager, it creates not only an environment of mistrust, but often also fuels behind-the-scenes disgruntled employee groupthink/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.

Related: How Owning Your Mistakes Prepares You For Success

“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:

  • Is 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?”

Related: These Are the 100 Best U.S. Companies to Work for, According to Employees

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