Safety Leadership – Learning from mistakes


Safety leaders learn from their mistakes. Actually, you will find quotes about learning and mistakes from all the leaders or successful people you can think of. A quote I particularly like is “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I’m thinking of making some more!”.

Well, mistakes are part of life. If you aren’t making mistakes you probably aren’t learning and if your not learning, you will not improve.

Mistakes are a product of a process that you have been through. They don’t just appear. You have to do something to get to a mistake. Note the “do”.

We all know this is right at some level. So why then are we so reluctant to admit to mistakes and hence learn from them? What is it that let’s these opportunities pass us by?

I think it relates to one of the 6 human needs: Significance. The work place provides an environment to meet significance and for a lot of people it is a priority. Being recognised, having status, respect, all that stuff with the people around you. People get their self worth from the status they have with the group they work in. This seems true regardless of your title or position.

What a mistake does is diminish significance very quickly. A mistake is often seen as a weakness or lack of something (knowledge, skill, ability). This affects significance directly. How can you have significance if you are seen as weak or lacking knowledge?

We also tend to treat people that have made a mistake in a negative way which affects our social thinking. What will people think of me? How many times have we heard this comment from people that have made mistakes. Making a mistake is a big deal and a negative one at that! It is little wonder we don’t want to focus the necessary attention and learn from our mistakes.

So, what do safety leaders do? In my experience they do two things. They reflect on their own mistakes looking for the learning opportunities and take action. They are able to reframe (cognitive reappraisal) the situation from a mistake to a life lesson. A useful way I’ve observed is to restate the mistake, acknowledging it and then add “but what can I learn from it?”. Stating the issue in this way can produce a powerful affect in the brain. When you use the word “but” you (the brain) negates the words preceding the “but” and highlight the words after the “but”. Think of a time when you felt you did something really well and someone said “that was really great but ……”. what part of the sentence did your brain focus on? So reframing the situation is a critical technique to be able to turn the mistake into a learning opportunity.

The other thing that safety leaders do is create environments where it is ok to talk about mistakes. They understand the important learning opportunity mistakes are and focus energies to realise these opportunities with the team.  Often they do this by sharing their own mistakes and what they have learned. They put discussions about mistake on the agenda and use positive reinforcement when the desired behaviours appear. They also show significance to a person that has made a mistake. Ensuring significance through reframing and focusing on what can be learned.

Safety leaders understand and recognise the power that can come from mistakes. They are self-aware, habitually acting on important learning opportunities from mistakes they make and energise the team to do the same.


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