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Creating A Culture Where It’s OK To Make Mistakes.

As folks head back to their offices in person and work environments are being revaluated, it may be the perfect time to reevaluate your company culture. What’s working? What’s different? How can we improve and meet staff where they’re at?

As we were thinking through this concept, one of VSG’s core culture phrases came to mind and we thought we’d share.

“Raise your hand.”

It’s a simple concept really. We believe that mistakes are bound to happen and the quickest, most productive way to navigate them is to recognize and acknowledge them early.

When you make a mistake, we ask you to “raise your hand” and take responsibility. 

Our pledge is to embrace the person who is raising their hand, and instead of dwelling on the mistake, work toward a solution as a team.

For many companies, this is easier said than done!

To be successful, you have to create a culture where it’s ok to make mistakes.

If you do this well, you will:

  • Produce better work
  • Retain talent and reduce turnover
  • Save time
  • Foster a company culture that embraces staff as humans first, employees second.

We sat down with our Vice President, Alex Devine, and asked her a few questions about how to create a culture where it’s ok to make mistakes.

Listen to the full recording here:


Alicia: Can you talk about how to create a culture where it’s OK to make mistakes?

Alex:  It’s how we try to manage staff here at VSG and what we encourage our clients to do as well.

A lot of times in culture and business, culture specifically, it’s really scary to make a mistake, when you do something wrong. The tendency is to hide it and not say anything. Then in worst case scenarios, you’re actually blaming others or throwing other people under the bus when a mistake is made.

What we try to do is make it appropriate, even encouraged, is to raise your hand and say, “Hey, team, I made a mistake. And here’s the solutions I propose or I need help fixing it.” So that we do not have secrecy, so that we don’t have, blame games going on and we get to the solution as fast as possible. So it can be something really small or it can be a huge mistake. 

The point is people should not be scared to say, “Stop. Actually, I’m so sorry I did this.” We call it raising your hand. This is a great way to describe it. So when there’s a mistake made, raise your hand and take responsibility. It is the fastest way to correct the mistake. 

If you are hiding things or are reluctant to admit your mistake or you wait until the mistake gets found out. Sometimes we could have fixed the problem if we knew about it right then and there. And we just addressed it and talked about it openly. And when time passes or we make decisions without knowing all of the factors that go into it, we’re kind of down the river a little bit.

So that’s what it’s about. Raise your hand culture. 

Alicia: How does management support that? That it’s a safe, vulnerable place that like, oh, I feel it’s this. This sucks. But how does management approach it?

Alex: That’s a great question. How do you create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes? Leadership has to do it themselves. We all make mistakes. Even your leaders, no matter what you think of them, they’re going to make mistakes.

You have to lead by example. And when you make mistakes, you have to make it known and you have to announce it and say, Team, I really messed up on this, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with them.

I think you have to demonstrate what that’s like. I’m going to ask for forgiveness if I need to, but I’m also going to say, “Help me come up with a solution or I’ve already thought of three solutions. What do you guys think?”

A part of a culture where it’s OK to make mistakes is being solutions oriented. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was or why the mistake happened. Just know that it happened and what are we going to do about it.

So I think it’s praising people and thanking them when they do raise their hand and acknowledge they made a mistake. Thank you so much. Now we can get to fixing it and just not making a huge deal about it, but then also doing some of that yourself and being more transparent, which I think is harder for leaders to do than their staff to do. Most of the time. 

Alicia: What about fostering feedback as people you guys work as a team and or you’re talking to other people who lead organizations. How do you create good feedback?

Alex: I think design school does a really good job of teaching people how to take constructive criticism, probably better than any scholarly program I’ve had staff come from, because it requires you to put your pride aside.

You have to separate yourself from the feedback that is being given to you. It is not about your personality. It’s not about how you look. It’s not about your relationship with the person giving you feedback. You hope, right?

Even if it is, to really receive criticism or feedback, you have to leave your ego at the door and you have to appreciate what the person is saying in context with how they’re saying it. 

In design school or art school, they jury your work, right? They put everything up on the board and people just rip it to shreds. And that’s expected almost. You learn to not attach yourself to your work. So that’s what we try and do in every single position.

It’s also important to remember that feedback can be positive and probably should be. So if you’re ever going to go into a feedback session, a really good tool is to make sure you  have at least three points of positive feedback so you can really pick apart somebody’s work and then forget what was good about it.

I promise you will always find something good about it. So we’re humans. We need praise to survive some more than others. So as long as it’s like a constructive environment, feedback is encouraged. So you have to work at that and you have to implement it every single day.

There’s management involved in getting feedback. You can’t expect your team to just give each other feedback without teaching them how to do so. People don’t do it naturally. If you’re working on a project and you don’t have a feedback culture, maybe you set up a meeting specifically for feedback and that becomes apart of your process and give guidelines. You know, you need to come to this feedback meeting that we’re having with four points of feedback and how it could be better and. Three points on how it can be positive.

You create your own path, I think, up front, and then the goal is people adopt that and like it and put their own spin on it and just becomes part of the deal. 

Alicia: How can you utilize feedback and culture within the organization to create high quality work or higher quality caliber work that maybe has been previously seen?

Alex: Hmm. Part of making mistakes is learning. This is the other reason why mistakes are really great and we should encourage them and not hide them. So if someone made a mistake and they’re going to learn from it because it’s OK, they’ve been given permission to make mistakes and they don’t feel ostracized or intimidated by that, you can have a more transparent conversation about what they could do differently. And that typically leads to the best work. So that can be, again, a small mistake or a large one. But by creating acceptance for mistakes, we make space for conversation and improvement.

And without that, it is only secrecy and it is only fear and it is only positioning and politics. “You know, I’ve only made two mistakes this year. And, you know, so-and-so is made four!”  That goes away because it is just accepted to make mistakes.

So we find it brings the team way closer together and it fosters this, “I’ve got your back and will support you no matter what!” environment, which is wonderful. And you’re going to see people go above and beyond for their coworkers and on their projects.

Alex: So when you hear create a culture where it’s OK to make mistakes, what was your first reaction to that? 

Alicia: I think it was an intentionality in how you lead it and not you specifically like how someone leads a team. Because of your culture, a culture happens, but you can create a culture personality.

And I think acknowledging that mistakes are actually helpful if they’re approached in the right way, and can actually bring tools to utilize the team . I think it’s a reframe of even like a culture as a whole.

Growing up,  if I can’t get a 4.0, like what am I doing? OK, I’m not going to get a 4.0 every day. And if I did that would not be healthy and good on my own. So, you know how to facilitate that it’s OK to do your absolute best and we’re going to pivot and learn to do better next time.

You know, so I think it’s a reframe mindset that’s a little different than even to my own personality. Thinking I had in high school or college. 

Alex: At what cost were you willing to go to get that 4.0 or to be perfect?

I think especially millennial age employees or staff members, they’re bred with anxiety in job performance. “Be perfect or else!” There’s a lot of expectations to live up to. So, I mean, really, people are stressed enough.

(people are) stressed enough that you don’t need the added pressure of being perfect because you’re not going to be. And that’s not the expectation. So I think creating a culture where people can make mistakes and raise their hand, as we say, allows for human factor.

It allows people to be people. And people create really good work, especially in a creative environment. You know, it’s not a job where you’re putting on an act. You don’t go to the office and pretend to be somebody you’re not for 40 years anymore. At least we don’t want to do that. You’re not going to get the best work out of anybody. And then you have burnout and turnover and you don’t actually know what your culture is like.

So it’s raising your hand when you make mistakes. But it’s really transparency is what we’re talking about. Make it OK to have hard conversations and support people when they are vulnerable. When they choose to do that.

Alex: I think it also takes time to create that culture. I would say if you do not have that culture right now and you do have secrecy and jockeying for position and people trying to get ahead.

Or spinning their own tales to make themselves look good, it takes a long time to break yourself of that habit. So even if you as a leader are going to change today and you’re going to go to your next team meeting and say, “hey, you guys, I made a mistake, let me share this with you.

Let’s try this new thing where it’s OK to make mistakes, you know, in this situation.” It’s going to take a long time, and you have to be consistent. You have to be really careful and observant of those around you. 

There may be some people on your team that will not adopt that culture. They can’t, it’s not how they’re wired. Sometimes it’s just hard to reverse. You know, you might lose a couple of folks in that transition. 

But certainly what we found as people who really want feedback and want to be a part of a team are often like the best possible teammates to have.

Doug has the saying,“When you raise the stakes, the winners love it and the losers leave.” I think that’s probably a good example of that. And really, that’s who you want on your team anyway.

Alicia: Do you have a story, because, I think it’s helpful to learn through stories and being able to say, “Alex, OK, it’s really good stuff, but what does that look like? How have you seen someone come in who wasn’t very vulnerable and there was an opportunity and then that propelled or backfired and then propelled?

Alex: Yes. Probably my favorite story of a staff member who admitted their mistake really early, just someone kind of born with that culture in them and is a wonderful member of our team, was we had an intern a couple of years ago who we had put in charge of client gifts for the holiday season.

And we said, “hey, intern here, water bottles that we want to order really nice, like vacuum sealed water bottles. We need our logo on them. Please upload the logo and submit for like 500, you know, thousands of dollars worth of water bottles to go out and packets for clients.”

And her being a self starter and really not wanting to ask questions like she really wanted to be independent and kind of figure it out. And we love little of that spirit, but a great example of why you raise your hand and ask for help when you need it.

She had not been around marketing too terribly long and didn’t understand that you had to specify a font for your logo. We have a brand font, she didn’t know where that was or where to find it. She uploads our logo and then just selected, I believe it was Avenir or something like that. So close to our brand font, but didn’t know you had to upload a font file. 

So she hits order. She’s like, “Hey guys, I got water bottles taken care of, no problem.” And then we got six boxes freighted to us of these water bottles. We’re like, “Yeah, the waterbottles are here!”

We open them up and these things look atrocious: wrong font, wrong color, not our brand at all. This poor intern burst out in tears and it’s like, “I’m so sorry. I think I did something wrong!”

So obviously we’re like, hey, no worries. We’re going to figure this out. No problem. The owner of the company actually called and explained what had happened to them, “I have a new staff member. They made a mistake. What can you do for me? We need to reorder these.” And it all worked out. We actually ended up donating them, I think, to a camp or something like that, who needed them. So it all worked out.

But she was so quick to say she walked right into Doug’s office and she said, “I made a mistake. We have six boxes of water bottles here that look terrible. Please help us.” I think that whole situation just really endeared her to us more than anything, that she took ownership of her mistake right away, didn’t try and blame it on the company or give us a bunch of excuses as to why she didn’t have that information or why she didn’t ask for help. Just in full transparency came in and said like, “I F***ed up, oops, what do I do about it? Please help me.”

That is so important to us and actually gave us a ton of trust in her and we started investing more in her. Anyway, and all that to say, she’s been promoted twice and she’s like a key member of our team.

We just love her to death, she’s learned from that experience. Now she’s like a fun story that we tell. But it’s a good way to vet people as well. When people are working for you, you have to create that culture and make it OK.

But I think some people, it comes more naturally to them than others and others you have to coach a bit more. So that’s probably my favorite story of an example of that. 


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