3 ways EMS agencies can excel by successfully failing

When leaders encourage risk-taking without the fear of failure or rejection, productivity skyrockets


When coaching leaders, my opening question is always “If you know you would not fail, what’s the one thing that you would start today?”

The answers vary, and are surprising. The question is a great introduction to what keeps us from reaching our dreams, and full potential.

One leader wanted to learn to fly. Since he was in his teens it had been a dream to achieve a private pilot's license. Then the conversation always turns to the why this goal was not achieved.

Another answer, from a supervisor in their late 20’s, had the dream of going to medical school to become a cardiologist. It's fun to watch the excitement of people explaining their goals, but inevitably the talk turns toward the reasons why it’s not possible; fear of failure or rejection: “med school is hard,” or “I’m sure I would not even get in.”

Following our dreams

We all have dreams and goals that we talk ourselves out of doing. The same is  true in our professional career.

When it comes to life or work there are two major factors that have been chiseled into our self-esteem since childhood and have followed us into our adult life. First is the fear of failure, which is really the chief individual hurdle to our achievements and success in adulthood.

Fear of making mistakes or failing at our work holds us back from taking risks, stepping up to take on new assignments or projects, or not reaching our potential. It is this fear of failure that powers our excuse basket for nonperformance.

The second major factor is the fear of rejection. Again, this was nurtured in our childhood. Our parents wanted the best for us and there was this standard that we needed to meet or exceed at every turn. In fact, when we met the standard (that always seemed to change for some reason) we received positive praise, but when we fell short of that standard the praise was never as powerful as the disappointment that soon followed.

Now as adults, we are often oversensitive to the opinions others have of us. We are concerned about criticism, or comments about how we work, or negative feedback from peers. We get defensive almost immediately when we are put into these situations.

Now in the workforce, we are trying to meet our supervisor or manager’s standards, and we do not want to fail. So, we stay in our safe bubble and are confined from reaching our potential.

Organizations that have an absence of fear excel

Understanding the psychology behind what holds our team back from greatness is an important factor in assisting them in reaching their potential. W. Edwards Deming, known as the father of total quality management, was sent by the U.S. to help Japan rebuild after World War II.

Deming created 14 key principles for management to building a high performance organization. One of his principles was to “drive out fear.” This is a vital piece of the puzzle for leaders to not only understand, but also follow. When there is an absence of fear in an organization, people tend to be more productive, and take more risks. When more risks are taken the success in the organization skyrockets.

As leaders we must practice total acceptance and knock down the walls that are holding our workforce hostage. As leaders we have all made mistakes. Let's look at a few ways to successfully fail in your organization:

1. Let everyone learn from mistakes, and failures  

Create a culture from the top down to discuss mistakes, analyze mistakes, erase the board and begin drawing again. Earlier in my career I shouted at an employee. What a grave mistake this was, compromising my integrity, my ability to influence, and my capability to foster teamwork. My chief made this a teachable moment with the other supervisors and gave us a plan that as a team we would try to mend my error.

2. Reward well-intentioned risks to improve performance

Reward those who take risks, regardless of if the risk was a success or failure, with an acknowledgement of the effort. Let the peers know they tried and the effort was appreciated.

An employee group came to me with a plan to come up with a “better version” for our shift bid policy. In short, their version was more strict, not user friendly, and would have been a logistical nightmare to carry out.

Even though as a team we had to go back to the drawing board, we recognized the effort, and from that point forward, we had our workforce at the table every time we revised policies or protocols. This was a win-win for everyone and without this display of reward for taking a risk; personnel are not going to get on the risk-taking train.

3. Recover from mistakes

I’ve been saying for years “experience comes from mistakes, mistakes come from lack of experience.” Failure is inevitable and needed to develop into the professional you will eventually become. Developing a culture where the field provider self reports a drug error or a protocol deviation allows for growth in the department.

It would be easy to simply discipline these employees, but what message is that sending? We need to embrace a culture of acknowledging mistakes to become an organization that does not abandon staff for one mistake.

You will not fail

It’s your turn. If you knew you would not fail as an EMS leader, what would you do? Be specific and write your answers in the comments.

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