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5 Reasons to Celebrate Mistakes at Work

EverythingHR Staff | 07/26/2018 | Blog
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh once tweeted:

“$1.6 million mistake on sister site @6pm.com. I guess that means no ice cream for me tonight. Details: http://bit.ly/blfLnF

Apparently an employee had made a mistake while updating the prices on the web site, which meant that for a whole day, no item could cost more than $49.95. Some of their items cost a lot more. Ouch!

Now what do you do? In many organizations, a mistake like this would be the starting point for a witch hunt. Who is responsible? How did they screw up? What would be an appropriate punishment?

But this is not how they do business at Zappos. At the link above, Tony Hsieh writes:

“To those of you asking if anybody was fired, the answer is no, nobody was fired – this was a learning experience for all of us. Even though our terms and conditions state that we do not need to fulfill orders that are placed due to pricing mistakes, and even though this mistake cost us over $1.6 million, we felt that the right thing to do for our customers was to eat the loss and fulfill all the orders that had been placed before we discovered the problem.

PS: To put an end to any further speculation about my tweet, I will also confirm that I did not, in fact, eat any ice cream on Sunday night.”

This is not soft or wishy-washy, it’s a great way to handle mistakes in a business. Rather than stigmatizing failure, we should acknowledge and even celebrate it.

Yes, that’s right, I said celebrate our mistakes. I’ve long argued that we should celebrate success at work, but we should also celebrate mistakes, failure and fiascoes. Here are the top 5 reasons why this is a good idea.

1: When you celebrate mistakes, you learn more from the mistakes you make

In one company, the CEO was told by a trembling employee that the company website was down. This was a big deal – this company made most of its sales online, and downtime cost them thousands of dollars an hour.

The CEO asked what had happened, and was told that John in IT had bungled a system backup, and caused the problem. “Well, then,” says the CEO “Let’s go see John!”

When the CEO walked into the IT department everyone went quiet. They had a pretty good idea what was coming, and were sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

The CEO walks up to John’s desk and asks “You John?”

“Yes” he says meekly.

“John,” says the CEO, “I want to thank you for finding this weakness in our system. Thanks to your actions, we can now learn from this, and fix the system, so something like this can’t happen in the future. Good work!”

Then he left a visibly baffled John and an astounded IT department. That particular mistake never happened again.

When we can openly admit to screwing up without fear of reprisals, we’re more likely to fess up and learn from our mistakes.

2: You don’t have to waste time on CYA (Cover Your Ass)

Huge amounts of time and energy can be wasted in organizations on explaining why the mistakes that do happen are not my fault. This is pointless.

3: When mistakes are celebrated, you strengthen creativity and innovation

Randy Pausch, was a college professor who became famous after giving his “last lecture” when he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In his classes, Pausch would give out an award called The First Penguin to the team that took the greatest risk – and failed. The award is inspired by that one penguin out of a whole flock up on dry land who is the first to jump in the water, knowing full well that there may be predators just below the surface. That penguin runs a risk but if no one jumps in first, the whole flock will starve on land.

A sign hangs in the offices of Menlo Innovations, an IT company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It says, “Make mistakes faster”. They know that mistakes are an integral part of doing anything cool and interesting and the sooner you can screw up, the sooner you can learn and move on.

4: Failure often opens new doors

Also, failure is often the path to new, exciting opportunities that wouldn’t have appeared otherwise. Closing your eyes to failure means closing your eyes to these opportunities.

Just to give you one example: Robert Redford was once an oil worker – and not a very good one. He once fell asleep inside an oil tank he was supposed to clean. But failing at that, opened his way to movie stardom.

5: When you celebrate mistakes, you make fewer mistakes

I know that a lot of people stick to the old saw, “Failure is not an option”. But guess what? No matter how many times you repeat this maxim, failure remains an option. Closing your eyes to this fact only makes you more likely to fail. Putting pressure on people to always succeed makes mistakes more likely because:

  • People who work under pressure are less effective
  • People resist reporting bad news
  • People close their eyes to signs of trouble

This is especially true when it’s backed up with punishment for those who make mistakes.

The upshot

Peter Drucker provocatively suggested that businesses should find all the employees who never make mistakes and fire them, because employees who never make mistakes never do anything interesting. Admitting that mistakes happen and celebrating them when they do, makes mistakes less likely.

James Dyson says this:

“I made 5127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative…”

We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, and dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually.

So my challenge to you is to start celebrating your failures. Next time you or someone on your team messes up, admit it, celebrate it and learn from it. Tackle the situation with humor (as Tony Hsieh did) rather than with fear and shame.

Your take

How does your workplace handle mistakes? Is it more like a celebration or a witch hunt? What has been your most spectacular screw-up at work so far? How did you handle it and what did you learn from it? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!



About the Author:

Alexander Kjerulf (AKA “The Chief Happiness Officer”) is one of the world’s leading experts on happiness at work and the best-selling author of 3 books including Happy Hour is 9 to 5. He speaks and consults in businesses all over the world, including leading organizations like IBM, Hilton, LEGO, HP, IKEA and many others. Because loving what you do is just that damn important!
Visit Alex’s blog at:  http://positivesharing.com/