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Shifting the Stigma of Learning from Mistakes

When you think of a fishbowl you are probably thinking of a googly-eyed goldfish swimming around a bowl. You are right, however, I am speaking about something a bit different in this blog. A couple of days ago I attended a fishbowl discussion. A fishbowl discussion is where active panel members sit in the middle of a room surrounded by a circle of participants, who can also actively participate.

In London we are lucky enough to have a learning and development fishbowl discussion that I absolutely love. Each session has a different topic for discussion and they are a great way to hear perspectives from others in the industry. The session that I recently attended was quite valuable and involved a discussion around, ‘Shifting the stigma of learning from mistakes’. I gained some interesting insights from the discussion and thought it would be useful to share my thoughts with you.

We live in a world that is continually evolving and innovation is becoming paramount to a high performing team/organisation that can ‘keep up with the times’. With this comes the risk of making mistakes.

To be innovative, we often need to try new ways of doing things and with this comes the risk of mistakes. Mistakes can be perceived as negative and are often something that we as humans avoid making. This discussion explored that dilemma and resulted in some great takeaways on how to shift the stigma of learning from mistakes. 

Without further ado, here are the top takeaways I gained from the session:

The Importance of Language

The group had a great discussion around the use of language and how that can impact the way we look at projects and problems. If you want to encourage your team members to be innovative and open to the risk of mistakes, it can be useful to use a certain type of language.

For example, if you want someone to work on a new project or complete a task in a new way, for those that may not welcome this and may feel anxious or not capable, call it an ‘experiment’ or ‘pilot’. This slight change in language can result in the person being more comfortable with the challenge and open to the risk of making mistakes.

There were some interesting opinions from participants on this, some stating that they think you need to use direct language with someone if they have made a mistake and others saying that you can use softer language to soften the blow.

Reflecting on this conversation, I wonder if different personality types can accept mistakes in different ways. Does the way that we are brought up as children and parented impact our acceptance of failure? Can we change our tolerance of accepting failure and how is that achieved?

The Impact of Time on Mistakes

An interesting revelation by one of the panel members was the fact that we can often speak comfortably about past mistakes though recent ones are a no-go. I can personally relate to this and it has got me thinking about why this is the case. There are mistakes that I have made when I first started working in learning and development and I am happy to openly discuss them with people. I believe that these past mistakes have had a big impact on my journey, who I am as a person today and I can speak about them with confidence. However, I have a stronger emotional attachment to more recent mistakes and this makes them a lot more difficult to talk about.

I wonder if we can separate ourselves from past mistakes and see our current self as a different version (e.g. Hannah 2.0)?

You can only get Better from Failure

Whilst mistakes can be uncomfortable and undesirable at the time, the learnings can be beneficial. We heard some great stories from panel members and participants around mistakes they had made in their career and how this had positively impacted their development as a person. One panel member even went as far to say that the pain of the mistake was well worth the learnings that they gained from it. I agree with this and I can think of multiple mistakes I have made that I am completely grateful for.

I wonder if we can openly discuss stories associated with failure or mistakes to people within our team/organisation to begin to remove its ‘taboo’ status? Imagine if the CEO and directors of an organisation openly admitted their mistakes to employees. How would this impact the culture? I think if organisations want employees to be innovative, vulnerable and take risks, it makes sense for the leaders to do the same and role model that.


The word ‘trust’ kept popping up in my head throughout this discussion and it got me reflecting on its importance to this topic. When I reflect on the leaders that I have had throughout my career there was a distinguishable difference between ones that I felt comfortable to discuss mistakes with and ones that I didn’t. The distinguishable factors between these leaders was trust. When I have a leader who I believe respects me as a person, respects my skills, my abilities and has built a level of trust with me I feel much more open to discussing my mistakes and being open to feedback when things go wrong.

We spoke about how a leader ‘leads’ can have a big impact on whether employees feel comfortable to make mistakes and discuss them openly. This is another great reminder of the importance of leadership.

Imagine an organisation that promotes innovation and taking risks, however, employees are punished by leaders if they make any mistakes. I am going to take a guess that there wouldn’t be much innovation going on in that organisation despite its ‘innovative’ title.

Those were the top takeaways that I obtained from this fishbowl discussion. I hope that these have added value to you and got you thinking about how you can shift the stigma of learning from mistakes in your organisation.

Special thanks to Trent Rosen from PSK Performance for organising the event and the panel members, Nigel Paine, Jo Cook, Donald H Taylor, Jackie Barefield and last but not least Ger Driesen for facilitating the conversation.

To end this blog, I want to leave you with a quote that one of the panel members quoted that really stuck with me…

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

- Winston Churchill.

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