As a business leader or owner how you deal with the successes and failures your employees produce is a critical part of the culture within your organization.

Your approach — especially in the case of failures or mistakes — will have a significant impact on your employees’ levels of motivation, their willingness to experiment and investigate new opportunities and ways of doing things and, most importantly, how accountable they are for their actions.

We’ve all heard the advice “You need to celebrate your successes.” Taking time to recognize your people, your team, or your entire organization for meeting a goal or achieving an objective has long been viewed as an effective way to motivate employees. “Recognize,” in this sense, doesn’t have to mean a large bonus, promotion or a trip to Hawaii. Modest forms of recognition, especially if they occur more frequently, can be equally effective.

The following are examples of effective recognition that I’ve encountered, and used, throughout my career: 

  • Recognizing the person or team during a department or employee meeting.
  • Having the boss cook and/or serve breakfast or lunch for their employees.
  • Calling a special employee meeting specifically to recognize an accomplishment.
  • Providing t-shirts to the team members.
  • Taking the employee(s) to lunch and thanking them personally.
  • Bestowing the ‘employee of the month’ parking spot.

Recognizing success drives employees who are motivated by the attention. It also supports the concept of employees taking responsibility and being accountable for their actions, efforts and results. People don’t mind being accountable when it involves success. Most employees are happy to show up when the boss is doling out ‘atta boys’ for a job well done. It’s a different story, however, when you have to face the music after goals are missed, a project or event fails to meet expectations or generate the forecasted profits, or when someone just really screws up. Who wants to show up then?!?

My recommendation is to start celebrating your mistakes. The next time you or someone on your team messes up admit it, celebrate it and learn from it. Tackle the situation with honesty, rather than with fear and shame.

Consider the following story involving Zappos Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Tony Hsieh’s response to a recent, quite costly, employee error:

“$1.6 million mistake on sister site @6pm.com. I guess that means no ice cream for me tonight.” 

Apparently an employee made a mistake while updating the prices on their website, which resulted in no item costing more than $49.95 for an entire day. And some of their items cost a lot more. Ouch!

In many organizations, a mistake like this would be the starting point of a witch hunt. Who is responsible? How did they screw up? What would be an appropriate punishment?

This is not how they do business at Zappos. Tony Hsieh posted the following:

To those of you asking if anybody was fired, the answer is no, nobody was fired — this was a learning experience for all of us. Even though our terms and conditions state that we do not need to fulfill orders that are placed due to pricing mistakes, and even though this mistake cost us over $1.6 million, we felt that the right thing to do for our customers was to eat the loss and fulfill all the orders that had been placed before we discovered the problem.

PS: To put an end to any further speculation about my tweet, I will also confirm that I did not, in fact, eat any ice cream on Sunday night.

This is an example of a great way to handle mistakes in a business. Rather than stigmatizing failure, it should be acknowledged and even celebrated.

Mistakes make powerful teachers. Mistakes are usually more instructive than successes — and often far more interesting. The lessons we learn from making mistakes often stick with us for a lifetime. We can translate those lessons into new values and behaviors that make a profound difference. In fact, with all the potential benefits we gain from mistakes, we have plenty of reasons to celebrate them.

Here are a few compelling reasons for why we should celebrate successes at work, along with mistakes, failures and fiascoes:

1. When we can openly admit to screwing up without fear of reprisals, we’re more likely to fess up and learn from our mistakes.

2. We can avoid huge amounts of time and energy that are often wasted explaining why the mistakes that do happen are not my fault.

3. When mistakes are celebrated, creativity and innovation are strengthened.

Randy Pausch was a college professor at Carnegie Mellon University who became famous after giving his “last lecture” upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In his classes Pausch would give out an award called The First Penguin to the team that took the greatest risk — and failed. The award was inspired by that one penguin out of a whole flock up on dry land who is the first to jump in the water, knowing full well there may be predators just below the surface. That penguin runs a risk, but if no one jumps in first, the whole flock will starve on land.

4. Peter Drucker provocatively suggested that businesses should find all the employees who never make mistakes and fire them, because “employees who never make mistakes never do anything interesting.” I had a boss early in my career that was well-known within our division of a Fortune 500 company for admonishing employees to “do something, even if it’s wrong.” Taking this literally is perhaps not the sagest advice, but you see his point.

One sure way to avoid mistakes is to avoid life. The writer who never finishes a book will never have to worry about getting a bad review. The would-be center fielder who never tries out for the team is safe from making any errors. The comedian who never performs in front of an audience is sure to avoid telling jokes that fall flat.

Admitting that mistakes happen, and celebrating them when they do, makes mistakes less likely.

5. In a recent post titled ‘Five More Characteristics of Great Culture’ Kim Shepherd, CEO of the Decision Toolbox, said: “Great culture isn‘t afraid to make mistakes. Everyone screws up. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. But if you think about it, there’s great power in screw-ups. If you screw up good and then share it, no one will EVER screw up that way again. So at DT we celebrate the screw-ups with a Boo-Boo of the Month award; a Starbucks gift card for the biggest mistake. That helps ensure that people come to management for help in smoothing over any rough spots and it gives everyone a chance to learn.”

6. Another reason to celebrate mistakes is the increased opportunity for everyone in the organization to tell the truth. Mistakes offer opportunities to practice truth telling. With this act come the rewards of honesty and candor, including self-knowledge and the capacity for change.

A note of caution: Celebrating mistakes is not the same as setting out to make them. Celebrating mistakes involves wisdom; setting out to make them involves willful incompetence. Effective people don’t set goals with the idea of making mistakes. Instead, they aim to reach those goals while accepting the risk of error.

So how does this relate to accountability?

There was an employee who had been summoned to his manager’s office following a rather dismal progress report on an upcoming event that was not going to meet expectations. The business leader was quoted as saying to his employee: “It tells you just as much when someone doesn’t show up at a time like this as when they do.” The employee asked him what he meant and he replied, “Don’t you remember? You were not the only one invited here for this debrief this morning.”  The employee had been so focused on how to fix the problem, she never noticed. Two others from marketing and operations had been in the previous day’s cross-functional briefing when the CEO had requested everyone involved to join the boss that next morning.  No one else showed up. 

Who owns their mistakes in your world? Are you inspiring them to show up and be accountable?

Tom Cline has a 28-year background in sales, marketing and operations. He is currently a business development advisor for Violand Management Associates (VMA) where he works closely with business owners and their key management staff as both a business consultant and an executive coach. To learn more about VMA's services and programs visit www.Violand.com or call (330) 966-0700.