This is the second article in a three-part series, “Unlocking Your Team’s Inner Drive,” from guest writer Tony Anticole, Challenger Advisor and founder and principal of Varna Group LLC.

In part one of this series, we talked about reframing a people manager’s job from “getting work done through people” to “motivating people to get work done.” One way to do this is through aligning our coaching efforts to tap into intrinsic motivators, or internal drives hard-wired into each of us. One of these intrinsic motivators, as identified by Daniel Pink in his book Drive, is mastery: people have the desire to improve at things they care about. Another key intrinsic motivator that Pink identifies is autonomy: as human beings, we have an innate desire to be self-directed.

Said another way: we don’t like to be told what to do, and we prefer to figure things out for ourselves. Managers who embrace this and give more autonomy to their teams benefit in two key ways: In addition to freeing themselves from the effort and time that comes from micromanaging, the manager also taps into a direct report’s desire to be self-directed.

Higher performing teams talk about mistakes

But autonomy can get messy. Thomas Edison famously said this of his quest to invent the lightbulb: “I have not failed; I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset 150 years later echoes this sentiment.

A growth mindset embraces the idea that failure is a chance to learn and pivot, and that we grow through practice and experience. Encouraging a growth mindset, then, is foundational to creating more autonomy within your team. The self-direction that comes with autonomy often requires a trial and error approach, especially when moving into areas where one has no experience. We learn by doing, and we often make mistakes (especially early on) when we’re trying something new.

When you embrace mistakes as opportunities to learn and make this part of your team’s culture, you’ll create:

  • A more connected team: The most cohesive hospital teams report making the most mistakes. That’s not because they were necessarily making more mistakes than other teams; rather, they were more able and willing to talk about mistakes in order to improve.
  • Higher standards: In high-risk industries, such as aviation, nuclear power plants, and the military, organizations that make it safe to admit and report failures are also the ones with the highest standards for performance and safety.
  • Higher performance: When Google studied hundreds of teams to figure out why some stumbled while others soared, the number one finding was that high-performing teams all believed the team was safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

An environment that encourages people to talk about mistakes doesn’t happen by accident; it is created through purposeful effort by the manager. Imagine if a young Thomas Edison were reporting to you: how safe would he feel telling you that he had found yet another way to not build a lightbulb? Whether a manager realizes it or not, they are always sending messages of what’s important through what they say and do (or what they choose not to say and do).

Creating a safe zone for making mistakes

What does it look like in practice to create a team culture of autonomy and learning from mistakes? Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety provides a practical how-to guide on creating a safe zone for higher performance. Her work is required reading for all leaders and managers who want to create teams that can thrive in the future of work. Taking a cue from Edmondson on how to build psychological safety, you can take these steps to create this safe zone for your own team.

1. Set expectations about admitting failure
Make it explicit that the team is a safe place to admit and explore mistakes. And emphasize that everyone plays a role in creating and holding that safe zone. The only way to learn is by doing, and things rarely (if ever) go to plan the first time. Create time in your agenda to talk about mistakes in both standing meetings and project-specific meetings. And reinforce that it’s a judgement-free zone: The purpose is to learn and to improve. Acknowledge and (genuinely) praise people who share when things don’t go as planned.

2. Become a role model for vulnerability
You set the tone as a manager; you need to walk the walk. It takes courage to talk about a mistake and admit when we don’t know. Provide your team with a model for what sharing vulnerability looks like: “I don’t know how to think about this.” “I don’t know what we should do yet.” By admitting what you struggle with as a manager, you reinforce an environment of safety and provide a learning opportunity for your team to understand challenges associated with different roles and levels.

Caveat: It’s far easier to create a pithy headline about the importance of vulnerability than it is to live it. Brené Brown is the recognized expert on being vulnerable; her TED talk is a great first step in embracing vulnerability

3. Create a shared vocabulary for talking about mistakes
One of the most important lessons I took from a decision analysis professor was that uncertainty needs to be talked about, and to do so effectively, you need to create a shared vocabulary for it. The same is true about mistakes. Remove any social taboo by creating a language that makes it easier to discuss mistakes or when things don’t go as planned. The story of Goldilocks provides a useful framework for discussing mistakes: You can talk about how your actions are too little, too much, or just right. When embarking on something new, start by clarifying the desired outcome to provide a shared way of measuring progress, success, or failure as you move forward.

Knowledge of the intrinsic motivator of autonomy combined with the ability to create a safe zone will help shift your management approach to increase engagement, motivation, and performance.


Tony Anticole

Tony Anticole

Tony Anticole, Challenger Advisor and founder and principal of Varna Group LLC, helps companies increase engagement and innovation through management approaches that directly tap into people’s intrinsic motivators.