Want Your Employees to Do Their Best Work? Make it Safe to Fail.

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By Renee Jensen

As healthcare leaders, we want to inspire and empower our employees to do creative, high-quality work that serves our patients and our communities.  There is seemingly no end to the methods executives can use to accomplish this goal, but I have found that no strategic plan, incentive, or leadership development program can foster this kind of work like an organizational culture where it’s safe to fail.  When employees aren’t afraid to take a risk on an innovative idea, they are free to do their very best work.

A work culture that embraces failure

I want my staff to feel empowered to be creative and innovative, but innovation is dead on arrival if employees are afraid of what the repercussions from upper management will be if an idea flops. My teams operate with a rapid process improvement technique; we run with new ideas, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something new tomorrow. Not every decision has to be permanent.

Creating a culture that embraces failure as part of forward progress requires hiring the right kind of person. While it’s essential to hire people based on the fit of their experience and skills, I believe it’s also important to find people that have a range of passions and talents beyond what is directly related to the position’s responsibilities or highlighted on their resume.  Once you uncover that passion, turn them loose doing what they’re excited about or interested in. 

It can be risky. But I’ve found that when you aren’t setting boundaries and telling people what is possible and what isn’t, they will amaze you with what they can do with passion, drive, and desire when they are free from the fear of failure.

During my ten years as CEO of Summit Pacific Medical Center, our CFO approached me about leading our EMR selection process. Though he was already adept at analyzing the cost of the potential new technologies, he knew very little about implementing these systems and processes. What he lacked in prior knowledge he made up for in eagerness and was excited to learn more about the how the IT and clinical departments operate. Though the assignment was really out of the box for a CFO, I encouraged him to run with it and build a team to get the support and expertise he needed to guide the process.

Not everything in this process went smoothly. There was a learning curve, and mistakes were made. But the CFO shared with me that he felt like he was able to accomplish something important that he couldn’t have done otherwise.  Allowing employees to take risks and take on something they aren’t sure they can do creates a deep sense of ownership and pride.  It creates an opportunity to build confidence, which develops better executives and better people.

Start with yourself

An organizational culture where it’s safe to fail requires that you, as the executive, dig deep and examine your own mindset and behavior first.  Like physicians, executives are often expected to get things right the first time and to make solid decisions every time we’re faced with challenges or uncertainty.  But you must be willing to fail before you can create an environment where it’s okay for your employees to miss the mark. 

Be vulnerable with your team; admit that you’re not perfect, that your decision-making isn’t infallible. Be honest when you don’t know if an idea or new initiative will work.  Ask for the same support that you extend to them when you push boundaries and try something new. Show them, by your own choice to take a risk, that you believe the growth that comes from pursuing an idea you’re excited about is worth the chance of failure, and watch as they begin to believe the same for themselves and their colleagues, transforming your organization’s culture.

Renee Jensen is a healthcare executive leader with over 19 years of experience in public hospital district operations and integrated healthcare systems.

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