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ETSY: A Positive Culture of Negative Confessions

What happens when people make a mistake at work? That depends on the culture of the organization- covering it up or passing the buck are options when competition drives behavior or if there is a low trust environment. But at Etsy, employees are not only asked to own up to their errors but reveal them to the entire company.

In a recent piece on Quartz, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson revealed that people at the company are encouraged to document their mistakes, how they happened and what they learned from it, in public emails. The company “also gives out an annual award—a real three-armed sweater— to whomever who made the most surprising error, not the worst one, as a reminder to examine the gap between how things are expected to happen and how they actually do.”

The process is simple: “Engineers (and now others at the company) are given the opportunity to give a detailed account of what they did, the effects they had, their expectations and assumptions, and what they think happened. And, crucially, they can give that account without any fear of punishment or retribution, in what’s called ‘a blameless post-mortem.’”

These disclosures show that people recognize that playing the blame game is a competition where no one wins. The result is a corporate culture model that other companies should consider adopting. Trust is enhanced because team members rely on one another to own their mistakes and disclose them without obfuscation motivated by self-preservation. Employees become encouraged to engage in dialog, secure in the knowledge that there is a learning organization of self-perpetuating growth where people are incentivized to learn from their mistakes by soliciting input and, even forgiveness when necessary, from their colleagues and peers.

We at Ethical Systems emphasize cultures of ethics for good reason: A proactive approach to ethics, aligned with a company’s strategy, is one that pays dividends for employees and companies in terms of reputation, longevity and productivity.

Research confirms the advantages to this approach to culture, yet adoption is always harder than advocacy. In the meantime, companies would do well to nudge employees to divulge more of their errors in an attempt to obviate future problems and promote disclosure. As we repeatedly emphasize: A culture that is fair-minded and blameless is one where people and profits thrive.


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