Motivating staff to own up to mistakes

Ever wondered how to motivate staff to report mistakes such as medication errors or minor injuries at work?  I’ve spent time in many workplaces over the years, in agriculture, volunteering, healthcare, and education.  Each workplace has had its differences, and issues, but in every one of them I saw people hiding their errors.  Mostly this was because when they had ‘owned up’ in the past, they were punished for it.  It has happened to me plenty of times in my working life, and often I didn’t report errors if I thought no-one would otherwise know about them.  The problem with this outcome is that the organisation ends up with a low rate of incident reports which might sound like a good thing, but it’s not.  An incident-report rate below expected norms for the relevant industry might mean the company is brilliant at safety and quality, or far more likely it means that the company lacks a safety and quality culture that values incidents as learning opportunities.
How then can a workplace motivate staff to report errors?

  1. Adopt a no-blame approach to incidents.  This is critically important, and has to come from the very top of the organisation.  Staff may well be nervous when implementing a no-blame approach and find it hard to trust that it is real.  Leaders and managers must realise that one badly handled incident will set the process back by months or years.  Don’t blame your staff for errors, and don’t knowingly allow any outsiders to blame them either.
  2. Give credit.  Acknowledge the courage of staff who report incidents especially ones which would otherwise be unknown.
  3. Highlight the positive gains that arise from incident reporting as they relate to workplace goals.  Safety and quality is the key, not paperwork.  Celebrating the introduction of a new checklist is not a positive gain in workers eyes if it does not relate to observable benefits in safety or quality.  That’s not to say that such things are un-needed.  Just don’t highlight them as key achievements.
  4. Apply consequences to line managers and senior managers who breach the no-blame approach, and do so transparently.  If workers don’t trust management, the problem won’t get fixed ‘behind closed doors’.
  5. Make incident reports a Key Performance Indicator for the organisation in the domains of worker engagement and safety and quality.  If the rate of incident reports is well below industry norms, critically appraise how they are managed and whether or why there is significant under-reporting.
  6. Educate all staff from the most senior manager to the student on work experience about the crucial role of incident reporting in securing improvements in safety and quality.
  7. Include incident reporting history in performance appraisals and staff development agreements, by linking a strong track record of incident reporting to a commitment to a culture of safety and quality.
None of this is easy, but it is all readily achievable if the organisation takes it seriously.

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