Are You Scaring Your Employees?

People embrace spooky fun around Halloween, but no one wants to live in constant fear of making a mistake at work. Executives who are afraid of taking a wrong turn with their companies unintentionally scaring their workers. This can cause much more harm than good.

Suppose your reputation hinges on getting “it” right—whatever it is, every time. Maybe you develop accounting software, in which glitches can mean big losses for your customers. Like a classic horror movie, you’re afraid to make the tiny little mistake that spirals into widespread doom. That’s understandable. But what about glitches that create new market opportunities, or that wind up saving your customers money?

Those “mistakes” are called innovation. The value in making mistakes is all in how you look at it. Business leaders who give in to scaring may tell themselves they are protecting the company reputation by making conservative moves, or wielding a big stick when employees deviate from the playbook or fall short of goals. But without taking chances, the next risky idea won’t ever pay off. And workers who are afraid to fail won’t share their ideas in the first place.

How can your enterprise move past the scary what-ifs to turn fear of failure to its advantage? Embrace it!

Bruce Lee, the famed martial arts actor, once said, “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” By owning up to a misstep, you cast away your fear and earn respect, as well as the chance to try again. Consider hotel chains that address bad reviews online. They demonstrate to guests their courage to admit failings and their willingness to resolve problems.

Top businesses such as 3M and Intuit prize mistakes as signs of boldness. These often give way to new products or services down the road. When a 3M scientist botched a glue formula for an aviation project, the “failed” product turned out to be just right for removable note paper. Post-Its now earn billions for the company each year. Leaders at Intuit, known for its Turbo Tax and QuickBooks software, understand that the line between ideas and implementation is not always straight. They celebrate workers’ mistakes with a Failure Award, realizing they can either learn what not to do or take a new direction to success.

Even if you don’t penalize your employees for making honest mistakes, you should go out of your way to prevent scaring them and being afraid to try new things. Besides rewarding failure, you can encourage idea sharing by providing an anonymous suggestion box and acting on the hints that roll in. A valuable prize, such as a luxury vacation, can serve as a “carrot” instead of a “stick” for nailing goals or finding new processes or solutions.

Perhaps best of all, involving top management in innovation think tanks—and publicizing their advances and setbacks—will set a tone for the rest of the company. Actions that show how much you appreciate fresh thinking will do far more to move your business along than cracking down on the “culprits” who take a wrong turn. After all, sometimes getting lost helps you find a great shortcut to new avenues.

When you think about mistakes, above all, remember that people who live in fear of making them are less effective. Halloween could be the perfect time of year to roll out changes that will make your workplace a little less spooky and a lot more innovative.