Learning from Mistakes – A Culture of Fear, Cover-up or Continuous Learning?

Creating an environment for professionals to make mistakes and to “learn forward” is essential in developing top talent.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with numerous professionals at all levels within organizations, and have delivered countless training sessions on development planning. There is one common theme – some of the greatest learning has come from undertaking stretch opportunities and embracing “mistakes” during the development process.

In Sheryl Sandberg’s most recent book, Option B, she says “to be resilient after failures, we have to learn from them. Most of the time we know this; we just don’t do it. We’re too insecure to admit mistakes to ourselves or too proud to admit them to others.”

Further, a recent Harvard Business Review article by Amy C. Edmonson “Strategies for Learning from Failure” states that the number of failures that are truly blameworthy is perhaps between 2-5%, however, 70-90% are treated as blameworthy. As a result, the opportunity to discuss and learn from these “failures” is often missed.

One thing is for sure — we all make mistakes.

Some feel huge, some are not as significant as we think they are and some have a bigger impact or consequence than we might imagine. Wherever they fall on the spectrum, they are part of our professional journey and part of every organizational culture. The opportunity to differentiate is in how mistakes are integrated as part of one’s professional development journey and organizational culture.

Here are a few points for consideration for professionals and organizations:


Surround yourself with an effective support team – manager, mentor and coach.

It is imperative that you establish a couple of strong professional relationships that enable you to discuss your ongoing learning and share your blunders.

Where possible, align with a manager who is confident and open enough to embrace mistakes as part of the learning process and doesn’t tally them as “black marks” on your performance appraisal. Coaches are also important, as they can lead you through a process of reducing self-blame and highlighting the specific areas you can focus on moving forward.

Reflect on and Integrate Learning

Mistakes are a gift in my opinion. We often spend a lot of time beating ourselves up and don’t always focus on the true learning opportunities that result. It is important to ask ourselves these questions:

  1. What would I do differently in hindsight?
  2. What can I avoid doing in the future as a result?
  3. Is there anything I can share with others based on my experience?

Embrace the journey

As a result of my work with employees who have been made redundant or who find themselves transitioning from one job to the next, they oftentimes focus on the mistakes they made or say “I should have known better.”

The truth is that we do the best we can at all times and none of us have the perfect career journey.

I believe that sometimes we don’t have all the answers and the proverbial “BIG” mistake just may be the stepping stone to the most amazing next big career or professional milestone!


Create forums and ongoing opportunities to share and discuss mistakes and learning opportunities.

Sheryl Sandberg also shares: “A resilient organization helps people overcome these reactions by creating a culture that encourages individuals to acknowledge their missteps and regrets.”

There are many organizations and leaders who have added “oops” or “blunders” as an ongoing agenda item to surface and engage in dialogue about missteps and lessons learned. When we share in this way frequently, it also reduces the stigma of making mistakes and facilitates a rich culture of ongoing development.

Embrace them and not fear them

As managers, is your gut reaction to discipline or to discuss? Do you berate employees or invite dialogue about what they did well and what they might do differently?

It is increasingly important, particularly given the profile of Generations X, Y and Z entering the workplace, that there is flexibility to take calculated risks and an ongoing effort to create learning opportunities.

“Right-size” policies, procedures and structure

Finally, consider whether or not your infrastructure supports a culture of ongoing learning and integrates mistakes as a part of development.

While it is important to create guidelines for employees in key areas, having too much rigor around what to do, when to do it and what happens if it isn’t done exactly according to the policy and procedure can foster fear and discourage employees from sharing their mistakes.

For example, let’s think about the message an organization sends when they have extensive disciplinary processes and spend a lot of time training on the right way to discipline. Now compare that to an organization that reinforces a leading-practice development process and dedicates time on developing coaching skills for managers.

Does your organization focus more on reactive and restrictive policies or policies that embrace dialogue and development?

We hope that you have enjoyed our article underscoring the importance of learning from mistakes and the role it plays in professional development.

We invite you to contact us should you have an interest in offering or attending development training, improving your management skills, are seeking a safe environment to discuss your ongoing learning or developing specific strategies to shift your organization’s development culture.