In his excellent TED Talk titled “Doctors make mistakes. Can we talk about that?,” physician Brian Goldman describes the first medical mistake he made, how he made mistakes “over and over again,” and how the culture he worked in made him feel “alone, ashamed and unsupported.” The culture Dr. Goldman describes contributes to widespread burnout in medicine today and it makes future medical mistakes more likely.
Over the years, I’ve taught at, consulted to, or analyzed and written about many technically-oriented organizational cultures where the cost of mistakes and accidents is high, not just financially but in human terms. These organizations include hospitals, cancer centers, medical device makers, the armed forces, military contractors and NASA. Organizations such as these do extremely important work that is of great value to society. Their employees know their work is important and they feel a sense of pride about it that has a positive effect on motivating them to strive to achieve performance excellence. Stated another way, the Connection Culture element of Vision is strong. I’ve observed that the frequent weakness, however, is that the Connection Culture elements of Value and Voice are less than ideal. These weaknesses make the organizations and their employees vulnerable.
When the Connection Culture Element of “Value” Is Weak
The Connection Culture element of Value exists in an organization when everyone understands the needs of people, recognizes their unique contributions, and helps them achieve their potential. This state makes people feel valued by their supervisor and colleagues.
When Value is weak, people are more likely to feel unsupported, left out, lonely and disconnected. They lose motivation to give their best efforts, align their behavior with organizational goals, proactively communicate, collaborate and cooperate. In extreme cases, they work against the interests of their organization as a form of retaliation for not feeling appropriately valued. This leads to more mistakes and accidents, and it increases enterprise risk from fraud.
When the Connection Culture Element of “Voice” Is Weak
The Connection Culture element of Voice exists in an organization when everyone seeks the ideas and opinions of others, shares their opinions honestly, and safeguards relational connections. It’s evident that Voice is at issue in the culture Dr. Goldman describes in which he felt that it was unsafe to speak up about mistakes.
Cultures that are weak in Voice are breeding grounds for knowledge traps, i.e. forms of relational dysfunction that trap knowledge within an organization so that it doesn't get to the individual who needs it in order to make optimal decisions. Knowledge traps come in several forms, including a lack of humility to routinely seek the ideas and opinions of others, rivalries, a lack of safety and honesty in a culture, and departmental silos and fiefdoms.
The culture Dr. Goldman describes creates a knowledge trap by failing to openly address the conditions that led to the medical mistake. When Voice is weak, others may never learn how to mitigate the risks that contributed to a colleague’s mistake that might have been avoided. They miss the opportunity to learn and put safeguards in place to make future mistakes less likely.
Connection Culture Contributes to Performance Excellence
The best culture is a Connection Culture. Connection is a bond based on shared identity, empathy and understanding that moves individuals toward group-centered membership. A Connection Culture is created and maintained when leaders communicate an inspiring vision, value people and give them a voice. Few leaders naturally do this well.
Leaders who intentionally create and maintain a Connection Culture can expect to see five benefits that minimize mistakes and accidents: 1. Employees give their best efforts, 2. Employees align their behavior with organizational goals, 3. Employees communicate better information to improve the quality of decision-making, 4. Employees actively engage in efforts that lead to innovation, and 5. Employees are smarter, happier and more productive. Together, these five benefits of connection add up to a powerful source of competitive advantage.
More From Michael Lee Stallard
Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.