Why Your Company Is at Risk If Your Employees Won't Take Risks

Last Updated Nov 10, 2010 12:00 PM EST

Nailed to a wall just outside our IT department is a flux capacitor. You know, the invention that allowed Marty McFly and Doc Brown to go back in time in the movie, Back to the Future. Sure is handy when we make a mistake and want a do-over.
If only life were so readily fixable.

One of our core values is to Experiment Without Fear. We want employees to get out of their comfort zones and take some chances -- try new things and not do exactly as they've been instructed. They might discover a better way. That's easily said, but quite another to generate the intended behavior. No one wants to look bad to his boss and co-workers and possibly lose his job if the risk doesn't have a positive outcome.

Here are three ways I've tried to encourage my employees at Blinds.com to overcome their fear and take some chances, improving not only themselves but also their co-workers and our customers:

Create the right environment: Let people know right up front that you expect them to make mistakes. We have a white board showing all the A/B and multivariate website tests we're running. We track the progress of each test on the board, even when they're not doing well. It's an objective, matter-of-fact display. Transparently showing both the successes and failures is critically important.

In meetings, require people to speak up even when their ideas are not fully vetted. Any idea should be greeted with appreciation irrespective of whether or not you agree with it.

Communicate consistently: When someone tries something new, reinforce to everyone else that the behavior is exactly the type that gets positive recognition. Soon people will know you meant what you said about experimentation. Celebrate successes for sure, but don't allow only the successes to be known.

React appropriately: When someone fails, be certain that your reaction is supportive. Never raise your voice or be sarcastic. Have a coaching session with them to ensure they learn from their mistake. Of course, repeating the same mistake cannot be tolerated.

Think about your own workplace environment -- are people allowed to speak freely? Are they chastised for even minor transgressions? The key, at least for us, is that we want people to think for themselves and develop autonomy so micro-managing is not required and people refrain from looking back over their shoulders. And instead, look back to the future.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, by travistips

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    Jay Steinfeld is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window blinds sales. He is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. His company was named Best Place to Work in Houston, won the American Marketing Association's Marketer of the Year, and Steinfeld was named by the Houston Chronicle as Houston's top CEO in the under-150 employee category for the last 2 years.