Charlotte A. Martin hates the word mistake.
“We want people to take risks, so you can’t very well hang them up to dry for a mistake if you want a culture of risk-taking and constant improvement,” she says.
The president and chief operating officer of Gateway EDI LLC refers to herself as the chief cultural officer, and in that role, she fosters an environment of risk-taking and idea-suggesting in order to develop employees and, ultimately, the company. Essentially, instead of bringing negative attention to mistakes, the company uses “training opportunities” to identify steps that could have been taken and ways employees can learn from the incident.
The positive spin has helped the electronic data interchange provider’s 260 employees generate $39 million in 2008 revenue. Now, not only are employees taking risks and responsibility for their actions, a Process Improvement Team has been created to encourage employees to take the lead on their ideas for company improvements.
Smart Business spoke with Martin about how to develop employees through a culture of learning.
Live the culture you want. The first thing I think that you have to do is make it an environment where people feel comfortable admitting that they made a mistake. Our whole culture is around customer satisfaction, making improvements, and so you want to create an environment where people don’t feel that they’re going to commit career suicide by admitting a mistake.
You have to do that first, and then you have to provide an example of people high up who admit mistakes and learn from it. Talk about it so that people at all levels feel comfortable. If I’m willing to do it, then other people will [be willing] too.
It sounds really simple, but it really has to be a culture from the top down, and it has to be a live-the-values-type thing every day. It can’t be, ‘Oh, this week, I’m going to do this, but in all other parts of my life here, I’m not going to live those values.’ It has to be the values that you show and live every day.
You don’t want to do this if you aren’t prepared to sift through a few failures. You have to be careful that you don’t have a culture of blame because if you start encouraging people to step forward and admit mistakes, and then learn from them and try to make improvements, if you punish people for that, it will never work.
Identify opportunities and work through solutions. Let’s say that somebody is working on a project and either that outcome doesn’t go well, or let’s say somebody is working on the front line and there is a miscommunication and a customer is upset and it escalates.
A supervisor gets information about this issue. So what they would do is have a conversation with that person and ask them, ‘Tell me what happened.’ You want to hear the whole (story). After you listen to them, you continue to ask them questions about, ‘You’ve thought about this. If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently? What could you have done to (make) this better? What preparations could we have made to handle this differently?’
If the person finds something that’s great, they’ll usually say to you, ‘Oh, I should’ve done such and such, and so I already went back to so-and-so, and I said this and this and this and that; now everything is fine.’ And they feel good about it.
If it’s a big enough issue … like an issue that affects a lot of people, we try to get employees to talk about it in their staff meeting. ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s what I did that I should’ve done better. Here’s how I fixed it. Here’s what I learned.’
But let’s say they don’t find anything that they could’ve done better, that it’s just sometimes things happen and you do your best and there isn’t any resolution. We really try hard not to blame people. We have what I would say a learning environment because it helps people grow and take risks. If you put their head on a totem pole, they’re going to keep it down.
Use specific language to reinforce your message. You don’t say ‘I,’ it’s always ‘We.’ Things are very much nonpersonalized so it’s ‘a plan’ or ‘the plan’ or ‘we did this.’
You never really single somebody out for any kind of negative reinforcement. You’ll single people out for positive reinforcement when they do something good, things that you wanted them to do. But if things don’t go well, you’re very careful not to do that.
Now, if somebody makes mistakes every day, they’re going to get reprimanded and we’re going to take care of it, but in general, people make mistakes because they don’t have enough information or because there was a misunderstanding on what they were supposed to do.
For us, if you look at it positively, then that’s the training opportunity.
Involve employees in positive opportunities. One of the ways, if an idea comes up, without scaring the person half to death — this is the old, parent-teacher-organization (model) — if you bring up an idea, you’re usually in charge of it. A lot of times, people won’t bring up ideas because they’re scared to be in charge, but along that line, if people bring up ideas, you want to encourage them to find a way to break it apart small enough that they feel good starting to take it on. There’s another training opportunity.
If someone has an idea, then you start asking them questions about, ‘Well, what do you mean? How would that work? How would that affect our customers? How would we move forward with it? Have you thought through those sorts of questions?’ You get people comfortable with solving problems and just sort of logically thinking through issues and ideas that they have.
There’s a lot of people with ideas, but that doesn’t mean a lot unless people know what to do with them.
How to reach: Gateway EDI LLC, (800) 969-3666 or www.gatewayedi.com