Are we (really) allowed to make mistakes in business?

Who said that the world of work was merciless and that the slightest mistake could be fatal to the most zealous employee? Less allergic to failure than they might seem, companies are increasingly welcoming mistakes into their processes. Let’s decipher a trend that has made its home in these very liberated companies.

Who likes to make mistakes? In the world of work, we tend to dread them, because a mistake can quickly become synonymous with dismissal. “Our relationship with failure depends a lot on the environment in which we have lived,” explains Enzo Colucci, creator of the podcast: Phénix l’échec mention très bien. “In France, our educational system induces a negative relationship to failure, but in the United States, they are much more relaxed”. For Enzo, we have something to gain by taking inspiration from this American vision. Because on the other side of the Atlantic, people love failure. Journeys marked by dips and rises are part of the storytelling of employees and companies, showing their capacity for resilience in challenges and crises.

In Europe, the relationship with mistakes is gradually being rethought. Through his podcast, Enzo shows that failure is an integral part of our lives, as is our ability to overcome it: “Our mentality is changing. Everyone’s vulnerability is much less taboo, and LinkedIn contributes a lot to this: the world of entrepreneurship and start-ups has understood that storytelling failure has even more impact.”

Progress and failure, two notions that go hand in hand

Stripped of its negative aura, error becomes a factor of change, and above all a necessity. This is due to an innovation economy that requires companies to constantly renew themselves. “Mistakes are essential for companies. To the point where it is no longer so much allowed to make mistakes as it is a duty to take risks in order to move forward”, analyses Julien Granata, teacher-researcher at Montpellier Business School and co-author of the book: Management libéré – 7 entreprises dévoilent leurs méthodes : agilité, performance durable et antifragilité.

“Companies that do not take risks are potentially doomed to disappear. For him, those who managed to make a profit during the Covid-19 health crisis understood this: “They took risks by seizing opportunities and creating new services or diversifying their activity. More than a corporate culture, Luc Bretones, expert of the Welcome to the Jungle Lab, founder and CEO of NextGen, sees the culture of the right to make mistakes as “what characterizes the most agile, efficient and innovative companies”.

According to him, innovation and error are intrinsically linked. “Innovation proceeds according to a Darwinian principle of trial and error, which we all experience in our lifetime. New generation companies must embrace the right to make mistakes as a cardinal principle of their development and survival,” he explains. “This right to make mistakes does not condemn people to get it right the first time and, moreover, it capitalizes on the learning that comes from making mistakes.

What is a culture of error?

Factually, the culture of error is far from being messy or irresponsible. For Luc Bretones, it is essential not to confuse a culture of the right to make mistakes with chaos; on the contrary, it is an increased involvement of the employee. “The right to make mistakes can only be positive and can be managed very well, it is even an empowerment of the employee”, but without ever having to be controlling, he explains. “If you accept the right to make mistakes, you develop a natural benevolence towards your employees. We ensure a form of psychological security that comes from management through trust and transparency”.

In practice, the culture of the right to make mistakes does not sit well with vertical and autocratic management. Luc mentions two essential tools: feedback and REX (return from experience). In companies that develop agility, these tools allow collective hygiene by being used regularly. They help to learn from successes and mistakes. With them, we try to understand the error, dissect it to share it collectively, so that the team emerges stronger. The same observation was made by Julien, who sees a managerial relationship that is much more focused on exchange: “The common point that we found between all the companies with a culture of error is that the managers give a lot of feedback, especially positive feedback, like a coach who guides the employee.

Another important point is the collective involvement of the team, far from the authority of the manager alone. “In vertical operations, the manager is usually asked for permission to take a particular decision. When we cultivate risk, the processes become more collective: it is the team that will be involved in the decision-making process, even if it means appealing to the hierarchy for a decision if the team has doubts about the degree of risk. Hence the need for the upward chain of managers to adopt a form of letting go and to get out of control.

Do we really have the right to make mistakes at work?

Although the culture of the right to make mistakes and the storytelling of failure are working in the communication of entrepreneurs on social networks, companies are still struggling to fully integrate mistakes into their processes. “I carry out managerial maturity audits all year round, using scientific tools derived from research, and I find that in 90% of French companies the right to make mistakes is culturally weak”, says Luc Bretones. “A company with a vertical organization will find it more difficult to adopt the right to make mistakes. To get out of this, you have to accept a good level of letting go of the hierarchy, and move from ‘command and control’ to an organization where the autonomy of employees is much stronger.

Julien Granata, who works as a trainer, coach of managers and business consultant, agrees: “Nine times out of ten, people tell me: ‘You have to instill the right to make mistakes, but be careful! The right to ONE mistake.” This kind of thinking shows that the company is still in a form of control.” The right to make mistakes has a long way to go before it is fully accepted. Moreover, one can question their capacity to be brought up in a company that does not have the right DNA from the start. For Julien, change is possible if it comes from the leaders, provided that the right to make mistakes is harmonized throughout the organization: “Companies are transformed by the vision of their leaders. The more the original vision is opposed to a culture of error, the longer it will take to change to a management style open to risk.

However, this approach must continue beyond the employees, in the hierarchy, between the direct managers and those higher up the chain, to ensure the coherence of this new way of leading. “This consistency is not always easy to implement and this is often where the problem lies,” he says. Big resolutions therefore require more than just fine words. “At a time when all companies are working on their values, there is a risk of being more involved in “social washing” than in a real culture of the right to make mistakes. But when the culture of the right to make mistakes is based on the relationship between managers and employees, it becomes much more than a line in the company’s ESG charter.

The key? The psychological factor, which takes the form of a reassuring atmosphere and a collective mindset. “The perfect counterbalance to failure is to get things moving and to share,” says Enzo Colucci. “Failure often makes us want to curl up in a ball on our own. By sharing perspectives with others, we can overcome failure and move forward”. There is no better recipe for turning failure into success.

Article edited by Ariane Picoche, photo by Thomas Decamps