What One Company Discovered: The Cultural Value of Learning From One's Mistakes

     

Near the end of a company-wide email whose subject line read, “I constantly fail,” Bridgewater leader Ray Dalio challenged the members of his organization to sit with this question:

“Do you worry more about how good you are or about how fast you are learning?”

At Bridgewater (an investment management firm based in Connecticut), learning from one’s mistakes is a job requirement. The company’s culture supports treating errors as opportunities for growth through a variety of tools and practices.

Diagnosing failure

First, every employee is required to record problems and failures in a company wide “issues log,” one that requires detailing one’s own and others’ contributions to mistakes. The logging of errors and problems is applauded and rewarded, but failure to record a mistake in the issues log is viewed as a serious breach of duty.

The data collected in the issues log is treated as a resource for collective diagnosis of root causes — both individual and organizational — of failure.

Another reflective practice involves recording one’s experience of psychological pain at work. The Pain Button app allows employees to record and share experiences of negative emotions at work — especially times when one’s ego defenses are activated by interactions with others.

Open sharing of these experiences then triggers follow-up conversations among the parties as they explore the truth of the situation and identify actions individuals might take to address underlying causes.

Data for learning rather than finding blame

This practice is intended to help individuals work through and actively manage forms of emotional self-protection that can otherwise be barriers to personal growth.

In these and other supportive processes, Bridgewater de-stigmatizes (and even celebrates) making mistakes. More than that, it treats the ongoing, often painful experience of one’s imperfections as valuable data for learning rather than unproductive blame 

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Copyright 2016. Harvard Business Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
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About The Author

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, co-authors of "Immunity to Change" and "How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work," have been research and practice collaborators for 30 years. Kegan is the Meehan Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. Lahey, also on the Harvard faculty, is a founding principal of Minds at Work, a leadership-learning professional services firm.