Can Your Team Screw Up?

Do people in your organization ever say, “I screwed up”?What if they could?

And how much are you losing out by not allowing for errors?

In the world of The Prism Effect, dark shadows can kill your company.


* * *

In the late 1980s, I worked at the Santa Fe Mountain Center, an organization that created and led experiential and adventure-based programs for youth, families and corporate groups.

And it was there that I screwed up. And I hid it. Or tried to.
Santa Fe Mountain Center.jpg
The SMFC hosted ropes courses and climbing walls for corporate leadership training, day-long rock climbing trips and Wilderness Expedition Programs (WEPs) for teens and youth-at-risk.

WEPs were 17-day excursions on which two instructors would take a  group of teens to Big Bend National Park in Texas. It was a significant journey for which we’d pack climbing gear, ropes, maps, tents, food, stoves, water, and first aid.

In the chill of the New Mexico morning, we’d pile into the van and drive 500 miles south, singing and sharing stories as we made the 9 hour journey to Texas.  Once at the Big Bend, we’d unload in a dusty parking lot, the sun now flaring in the late afternoon sky, and organize our gear for the 17-day trip into the grand, silent, awe-inspiring desert.

Big Bend National Park.jpgIt was on the arrival day of one of these trips that a small incident occurred.

I dropped off my co-instructor and the kids at the trail head, hiked in with them to our first camping location, and then raced back to the van to re-park it at a different location.

In my hurry and excitement to turn the van around and rejoin the group, I backed into a boulder, smacking the tail light so hard it shattered into pieces.

It’s been decades since this happened, but I still remember leaping out of the van and running around to the back to inspect the damage. There in
the sand lay an array of broken red and white bits of plastic. My heart sunk. I picked up the pieces as quickly as possible, tossed them in the garbage can, re-parked the van and ran back to join the group.

Busted Tail Light.pngI didn’t say a peep about this to my co-instructor. I turned my attention to the trip ahead. But that night and throughout the expedition, the thought of the broken tail light would flicker inside me and my stomach would fall.

17 days later, when we returned to our SFMC headquarters outside of Santa Fe, victorious, tan and joyous from our trip, I didn’t report the broken light to the equipment manager. I was far too frightened about this mistake and ashamed of my parking lot error.  I hoped he wouldn’t inspect the vans too carefully and figured that even if he did, he might imagine someone else had done the damage. Vans got used again soon after they had been returned.

Somewhere, too, I figured if I didn’t say anything,
the problem might just go away.
But Paul, our equipment manager, did notice. It wasn’t until our weekly meeting a few days later that the issue arose. And it arose in the most unexpected way. Dave, an older, quiet, contemplative and very sweet man who had been at the Mountain Center for a while, cleared his throat. “I wanted to raise something. I heard recently from Paul that one of our instructors broke a tail light on a van…but didn’t report it.”
I stiffened with fear. 

The room looked around wondering who was guilty.

“But what I think what we need to look at,” Dave continued, “is not who’s to
blame but more importantly, what kind of a culture have we created that
someone doesn’t feel safe enough to report an error.”

People sat back in their seats. Brows furrowed and heads nodded.

I nodded, unbelievably relieved.

But Dave was right.

The discussion that ensued focused on our culture and how to repair this very subtle but critical issue.

* * *

What kind of culture have you created?
If it’s one of fear, what could you do to begin to change that?

No doubt, this is tricky terrain…but it’s well worth considering and figuring out how to solve, because if you don’t, people could be hiding a lot more than a busted tail light.

And you would be remiss not to find out.

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