Saturday, May 05, 2012

"Forgive and Remember" and not "Forgive and Forget"

We have all worked under that bad boss who doesn't tolerate a mistake. In my long corporate career I have done. S/he would shout, badger, abuse and expect nothing but perfection in the work (Yeah, women bosses are just as bad!). Result: most people would leave rather than work with such a boss. What makes you chuck up the job and leave? What's the breaking point in such cases? No one wants to work with a guy/gal who is like an athlete on steroids. A lot of things are expected in organisations and when they don't happen the tendency is to point fingers and put the blame on others. Or, else, conveniently find a scapegoat and get him/er fired. However, the simmering differences remain. One screwed up doesn't mean one gets fired. The screwing up could only be one in a long line of successful project implementations. I have known of organisations where a person has worked for twenty odd years and fine morning is fired because of a simple silly mistake!

This Harvard Business Review (HBR) article is about discussing where one failed and owning up. "We screwed up, but let's not do it again." Not that the boss should have an attitude of everything is forgiven and forgotten, but one that says it's forgiven but not forgotten. Charismatic bosses can do that. The book Forgive and Remember is about just that. Please grab a copy. It's required reading for an up-and-coming executive. 

Excerpts from the HBR article:

Edmondson's subsequent research with Anita Tucker (see pdf) on what nurses can do to prevent and learn from mistakes is instructive — and makes it clear how much a good boss has to be willing to forgive. When they looked at the behaviors of the best nurses, they found "noisy complainers" (constantly sounding off to management about the causes of errors), "noisy troublemakers" (calling out mistakes by others that they could have turned a blind eye to), and "self-aware error makers" (making it known when they'd caught themselves doing something wrong, and encouraging others to be watchful for mistakes on their part). In other words, if you asked a doctor to imagine a "good nurse," these nurses came across as pretty much the opposite.
So a willingness to forgive — even of behaviors that can feel threatening — is essential on the part of any boss who wants to set group norms that will lead to psychological safety and constant learning. But, that shouldn't extend to a resolution to "forgive and forget." Those of us who have children learn that this is often the response they want when they mess up. I will personally always remember, for example, the day — the very day — that my daughter got her learner's permit to drive. A mistake of a few inches, hitting the gas instead of the brake, sent my wife's brand new car into the side of the house. All our daughter wanted was forgiveness, and for the incident to be completely erased from our memory banks. In that case, it might have been best.
In most settings, forgiving and forgetting, while temporarily comforting, condemns people and systems to make the same mistake again — sometimes over and over. The better approach is to "Forgive and Remember", which is the title of a great book by Charles Bosk on medical errors, and the philosophy he says the best teams and organizations use.

So? Choose to work with a boss who will discuss your failures and not shout at you for it. Simple!

I am @johnwriter on Twitter and John.Matthew on Facebook. I blog here. View my Youtube Channel Page here.

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