The goalkeeper for the university soccer team was ready. The ball was coming down the field toward him, two forwards passing it between them as his own teammates unable to steal it away. He saw the shot coming, crouched, and leaped left. The kick was beautiful. The keeper’s fingertips brushed the ball but not enough to stop the score.
His coach instinctively reacted, throwing his hands up in the air with frustration. As the teams moved to the middle of the field, he yelled at the keeper, “Keep your legs bent next time, and move faster! You could have had that save!”
Calling out missed opportunities is the choice I see leaders make often when they witness failure on their teams. “Here is what you can do better.” This approach is not necessarily bad. However, like with the soccer coach, the underlying message is, “You aren’t doing well, and you did not measure up.”
Being told what you did wrong has an impact on your next action. You may worry about what other people think, or you may hold back from trying something, so you don’t lose. How often do you seek advice from a colleague you know and like instead of seeking advice from someone you don’t know but might have the expertise you need to solve the problem? When you don’t want to show you might not have the competence, you don’t put yourself out there.
Your team needs to understand that getting something wrong doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them.
We need to create environments where people feel safe to make mistakes or where they can ask questions on things they don’t know, even if they think they should know it! One of the best ways to do this is to call out the good stuff.
Take the soccer coach in my opening scenario. If he had instead said, “You did a great job anticipating that ball. It was a great shot, but you were right there and will get it next time!” He is telling the player that a single failure is not the end of the road. It doesn’t define him as a keeper or as a person. The coach is instead building his confidence. He is also demonstrating to the rest of the team that they can “go for it” without consequence. This allows his players to achieve more than they believe they can.
Safe to be ourselves. Creating an environment for testing, changing, fixing, reinventing, and innovating, all starts with the ability to feel safe when we fail. Add the encouragement from others to call out the good stuff, and you create the ability to aim higher, leap farther, and know someone is there to support you. That trust allows teams to achieve amazing things. Without it, we find our teams going straight to the “contingency plan”, often giving up the chance for greatness to settle for mediocrity.