Julie Morath is the president and CEO of California Hospital Quality Institute. Before that, she was the COO at Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota. Long before that, she was just starting her career as a young hospital nurse, when she witnessed an event that would haunt her for years after.
Julie saw a four-year-old patient die from an anesthesia error.
Monica Worline and Jane Dutton share Julie’s reflection on that experience in their book Awakening Compassion at Work:
“The nurse who felt responsible went home that day and never returned, giving up the career she loved due to a profound and crushing feeling of guilt.” Julie described an even wider ripple of suffering that spread through the organization: “Doctors and other nurses just shut down and never talked to one another about what happened.”
This is a story about a tragic death. And it’s a story about how an entire culture suffers when mistakes are left to the devices of blame, shame, and fear—instead of being actively received in an environment of trust.
But the amazing part of this story is what Julie Morath went on to do.
When she arrived at the hospital in Minnesota, Julie set out to achieve an amazing goal: 100 percent patient safety. At the heart of Julie’s strategy was a ‘blame-free reporting’ system that gave medical professionals a place to be transparent in response to errors and get the tools and insights they needed to avoid making the same mistakes again.
Julie changed hospital culture by shifting an entire organization’s attitude toward mistakes. Errors became understood as crucial moments of transformation.
How’d she do it?
That’s what I’ll take a look at today. Here’s what I see in Julie’s story of leadership—and how you can use the same tactics to become a trust-oriented organization that harnesses mistakes for productivity, creativity, collaboration, innovation, and joy.
In other words, for good.
Spreading Awareness: You’re interdependent.
The organizations I’ve known that model trust culture well have something in common.
They face a lot of challenges regularly, and when they do, they recognize a core truth in the struggle: Every team member depends on the others.
Awareness of interdependence—our understanding that we need others—is a crucial starting point for teams. When we realize and acknowledge that we’re dependant on our coworkers, graciousness, humility, and engagement start to make sense in the face of mistakes. We’re a team—not for fluffy or intangible reasons—but because big missions are accomplished with teamwork, with trust.
To start enhancing that trust, all we have to do is look to the moments when we need each other most: when we make mistakes. That evidence of our interdependence inspires a mindset of trust.
Creating a Collective Goal: Everyone Has a Part.
When we create a shared, aspirational goal for our organization, we declare our interdependence. After all, a collective goal is a type of goal we simply can’t achieve alone.
Collective goals also give every person, as an individual, a big-picture vision—a reason to do what they do and a sense of belonging. Purpose and belonging become crucial when we make mistakes. Without them? We’ll be hesitant to admit our errors, or worse: we won’t see the point.
Setting A New Default Assumption: Make It Positive.
We tend to assume the worst about others. But that tendency doesn’t doesn’t have to infiltrate our relationships—not if we catch ourselves in the act, then choose to believe another possibility: that our teammates show up with good intentions; that they really are trying to do a good job.
Assume that. And also assume this: Your coworkers are human. They’re going to make mistakes.
This mindset discipline might seem minor, but people notice. We can all sense when it’s safe to be vulnerable. If you’re setting a negative default assumption, I’m going to know, and I’m probably not going to disclose my mistakes to you—which is a missed learning opportunity that meanwhile wrecks trust and instills shame.
Eradicating Blame: Mistakes Have To Be Okay.
Why are we reluctant to admit our mistakes? Because we fear finger-pointing, shame, and blame. But to grow, teams have to learn from mistakes, and they won’t learn if people don’t admit them. Make it normal, safe, and part of the process to report errors and mistakes.
If you’re skeptical about the idea of “trust building” in your workplace, consider Julie’s story.
In Worline’s and Dutton’s words:
“Thirty years later, Julie is still using the pain of that intense period of suffering to motivate and lead others in ways that create possibilities for more generous interpretations of failures and the suffering they engender.”
In my words: It is possible to build a concrete process for handling mistakes well. It is possible to plan for imperfection in the workplace, so that it doesn’t do long-term damage. If you make the effort to build a safe learning culture, your organization will visibly change. For the better.
Do you and your team feel like you can talk about your mistakes at work?
What process can you put in place that would make mistakes better than okay?
What if, in the face of that big mistake, you all knew: There is a real way to move forward.
And what difference do you think that gift of trust—the one you already ‘purchased’ and planned for—could make?
Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.