A culture of innovation is founded on forgiveness. Yet in many workplaces people are put under unforgiving pressure to turn ideas into innovative advantage, with little patience for mistakes.

When human beings are allowed to genuinely take risks and fail now and again, they have the support and space to really innovate. If you have a climate of criticism, retribution or intolerance of mistakes, or even of fear, control, anxiety, negativity and stress, people are not going to do their best work. They may feel that they dare not fail in case they are fired, and are likely to stay in their comfort zone, avoid sharing ideas and lack the positive emotions they need to fuel creativity and collaboration. On the other hand, a climate of trust, openness and forgiveness gives people the confidence to experiment, learn and forge ahead with a positive outlook and expectations.

Leaders are the ‘climate engineers’ of their organisations and teams. The conditions they create make it possible for their followers (and themselves) to perform at their best, collaborate to solve problems in new ways, and come up with innovations.

We know from research by Hay Group that the leader’s emotional state contributes to about 70 per cent of the climate of the team, which in turn influences business outcomes from productivity to profit. When leaders foster forgiveness, along with compassion, gratitude and appreciation, they can create a positive climate and culture that is the foundation for innovation and success.

Forgiveness at work

When we talk about forgiveness or compassion at work, people often see them as soft words.

Forgiveness is not about forgetting or condoning every action. It is about genuinely moving on from mistakes without the need for vengeance or retribution. In corporate culture, when a person makes a mistake, blame is often attributed, or their manager tells them it’s okay, yet keeps bringing it up as part of their performance.

High performance doesn’t need to be sacrificed by turning a blind eye. You can maintain high standards and take things seriously while making an effort to understand the situation and genuinely forgive team members’ inevitable human mistakes. Often this involves a tough conversation. If a boundary is crossed, you need to be clear that the mistake is not acceptable and explain what you require in future. You may need to let them know that if they make that mistake again you may be more serious. That’s still showing compassion while empowering your team member to continue striving to achieve their innovation and performance goals.

Failing faster

One of our clients, a global energy company with an innovation agenda, says to their employees, “You’re free to fail, just fail fast”. They know that in order to get innovation people are going to have failures along the way as well as successes.

So how do they manage the risks?

By putting an innovation council in place who work with people around the innovations they come up with, they can ensure due diligence without hampering the flow of ideas. People are free to come up with creative projects, which are then put to the council who can check out issues such as feasibility and budget.

Previously people were too scared to have a go because they didn’t necessarily have the right support and the right climate. Now leaders, who have been learning positive leadership skills, are encouraging them to take appropriate risks and helping to ensure learning occurs from mistakes as well as successes. It is speeding up the cycle of learning as well as the creative output. People are a lot more inspired, engaged and productive.

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