You’re probably familiar with the following mantras:
Mistakes are beautiful.
Fail fast and often.
Errors are opportunities.
All of these are basically true. But the real question isn’t whether mistakes are valuable. The real question is, how do we tap into that value? How do we take better advantage of our mistakes?
A while back, a Harvard business professor named Amy Edmondson decided to explore this mystery by investigating the organizational habits of hospitals, measuring the quality of the leadership and worker relationships in eight institutions.
Edmondson discovered something surprising: the best-run hospitals reported ten times more errors than the poorly run hospitals. Investigating further, Edmondson found that the real difference wasn’t in making mistakes (all the hospitals made about the same amount). The difference was in reporting them. Well-run hospitals operated in an open, transparent manner; mistakes were seen as opportunities for discussion and improvement. Poorly run hospitals, on the other hand, were filled with fear, uncertainty, and silence. Employees thought that “heads would roll” if they admitted making mistakes.
In other words, the better hospitals weren’t necessarily smarter or more talented. They had something more powerful: a psychological safe zone: a shared place where mistakes weren’t hidden, but discussed in the clear light of day.
To understand why this effect is so powerful, you have to understand that our brains are keenly sensitive to safety, and react with the equivalent of an on/off switch. When we get signals that we’re safe, we can relax, switch on, and perform to our potential. But when we get signals that we’re unsafe, we instinctively revert into what some call the “critter state”: fearful, twitchy, hunkered down. We switch off.
With that in mind, here are a few ideas on how to create a sense of safety:
1) Send the message early and often. Our brains are built to decide whether we’re safe very early in any interaction. The earlier you send the signal — making mistakes and talking about them is okay — the more effective it will be.
2) Be systematic. Capture mistakes in notebooks, or through an open review process. Encourage the dissection process. Treat mistakes not as a verdict, but as information to be sifted over and over for connections and ideas.
3) Model it. No signal is so powerful as a leader who is open about their own mistakes, even small ones.
Do the Academy Awards give an Oscar for Most Inspiring 40-Second Video? Because I’d like to nominate the above video, from coach Trevor Ragan of Championship Basketball School. Suggested title: “Super-Psyched Little Dude.”
This kid is not merely excited. He is super duper excited, in a way that is both focused and contagious. A psychologist would say that he is deeply engaged. As Trevor writes, this engagement fuels a subsequent rocket-launch of learning and improvement. As it usually does.
Engagement is perhaps the most important, yet least-understood element of the talent-development process. Where does it come from? Why does it happen in some learners and not in others? How do you sustain it?
The biggest problem, I think, lies in the way we think about engagement. Because real engagement is easily confused with its far-less-productive twin: mere fun. That confusion — which is like confusing lightning with a lightning bug — lies at the core of some of our barriers to effective learning.
We’re all familiar with classrooms, sports teams, and offices that are absolutely brilliant at engineering fun, yet far less brilliant at producing real improvement. The late coach Tom Martinez called them “ice-cream camps” — places where the focus was not truly on skills, but rather on the sweet, entertaining buffet of activities that filled the day.
So the real question is: how do you spark engagement and avoid the empty calories of mere fun? Here are a few ideas:
1) Spend time designing a game that is built around the specific skills you want to teach. Aim to place learners in their sweet spot: tasks that are not too difficult, and not too easy.
2) Talk less. Real engagement doesn’t happen when a teacher or coach is talking (a recent MIT study showed that student physiological arousal essentially flatlines during lectures). Engagement doesn’t come from words, but from actions and involvement.
3) Aim for swift feedback. The most engaging games are transparent: you don’t need a coach or teacher to inform you how you’re doing, because the game tells you.
4) Keep it social. Engagement operates like a virus. As the video shows, small groups are a good way to increase the odds of those viruses being transmitted.
5) Do the minimum: The leader’s role is to do nothing except to keep things moving. Set the stage, then back off and let it happen. A good leader’s job is sort of like cloud-seeding. You can’t make the lightning strike happen. But you can design the conditions where the chances increase.
That’s not to say that fun isn’t a vital ingredient — it is. But the key is to understand that fun should be the seasoning, not the main dish.
Every teacher or coach worth their salt knows that there’s no moment more important than the moment feedback is delivered. Do it correctly, and the learner takes a step forward. Do it poorly, and the reverse happens.
The deeper question is, what’s the secret of great feedback? We instinctively think that effective feedback is about the quality of the information — telling the learner to do this and not that. But is this true, or is there something else going on?
A team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and elsewhere recently set out to explore that question. They had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback.
To their surprise, researchers discovered that there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they deemed it “magical.” Students who received this feedback chose to revise their paper far more often that students who did not (a 40 percent increase among white students; 320 percent boost among black students) and improved their performance significantly. (See the study here.)
What was the magical feedback?
Just one phrase:
I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.
That’s it. Just 19 words. But they’re powerful because they are not really feedback. They’re a signal that creates something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection.
Looking closer, the phrase contains several distinct signals:
1) You are part of this group.
2) This group is special; we have higher standards here.
3) I believe you can reach those standards.
The key is to understand that this feedback isn’t just feedback — it’s a vital cue about the relationship. The reason this works so well has to do with the way our brains are built. Evolution has built us to be cagey with our efforts; after all, engagement is expensive from a biological standpoint. But when we receive an authentic, crystal-clear signal of social trust, belonging, and high expectations, the floodgates click open.
I think the lessons for teachers and coaches are pretty simple:
First, connect: like John Wooden said, they can’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Highlight the group: seek ways (traditions, mantras, fun little rituals) to show what it means to belong in your crew.
Don’t soft-pedal high standards. Don’t pretend that it’s easy — do the opposite. Emphasize the toughness of the task, and your belief that they have what it takes.
If you have any ideas, stories, or examples to share about how coaches and teachers achieve this kind of connection, I’d love to hear them.
Every day, in every profession, we hear people celebrated as “great coaches.” And it’s mostly true. The worlds of sports, education, and business are brimming with legions of talented, remarkable coaches — perhaps more than at any other time in history.
But here’s the question: what does being a great coach really mean? Is it a flattering catchall, or is there a more useful way to understand the essence of what the best coaches do?
When you look deeper, I think great coaches come in three evolutionary types. You can think of them as three species, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
First, there are great coaches of behavior. These people tell you what to do, how to do it, and when to show up. They focus their energy on making sure things go as planned. You might think of these as the Daddy Coaches, old-school guys. You show up, they’ll provide the machine to make you better. Their key asset is their system, their process (Exhibit A: Nick Saban.)
The second type of great coach is one who deals in knowledge. They are focused on the information — what to learn, when, and what it means. They deal in the currency of ideas and techniques, and on making sure the right links are made at the right time. You might think of these as Teacher Coaches; they’re found more in quieter, individual pursuits. If behavioral coaches are about the what, knowledge coaches are about the how and the why.
But there’s a third type of great coach. A mysterious type who often go overlooked, because what they do doesn’t look like coaching. It looks more like magic. Because these people have the ability to alter someone’s destiny in the time it takes to eat lunch. They aren’t about the how or the why — they’re completely, utterly about the who. Their core skill is to see someone in a way that they don’t yet see themselves; to give their lives a larger narrative, sense of belief, a higher purpose.
You might call them a Soul Coach. And a perfect example in my profession would be Peter Kaplan, who died of cancer last week at 59.
You likely have never heard of Kaplan. He served as editor of several publications, most notably the New York Observer from 1994 to 2009. His real job, however, was hiring, mentoring, and serving as godfather to an entire generation of top journalists far too numerous to list here. To writers, he operated like a favorite uncle, constantly giving them targets to reach for, and nurturing the belief that they could do it. As one put it, Kaplan was Dumbledore, and NY journalism was his Hogwarts.
It’s instructive to see how he used his skills. As Doree Shafrir wrote, getting hired by Kaplan was “like getting tapped for one of the most thrilling secret societies in the world.” In his New York magazine piece, The Wizard and the City, John Homans describes the scene:
[Kaplan’s] signature move was this: He’d escort his 24-year-old quarry into his office in the New York Observer’s townhouse, cock one of his groucho eyebrows behind his big round horn rims, pause, clear his throat, pause again, clear his throat, pause. Some more inarticulate noises. And then, if you were lucky: “Do you wanna be a star?”
What a come on! What young writer wouldn’t say yes to such an offer? And with that, Peter had implicated his prey in his own vast ambition, which made for a fantastic ride. Peter thought that journalism could change the world, and he mythologized himself by mythologizing everyone around him, imagining career trajectories and inflection points, allowing his people to believe preposterous things about themselves — which sometimes came true, partly because he believed in them himself…. He was prepared to find something in all people, from his dentist to the counterman at the Viand coffee shop. He was never a snob. And when you’d entertained him, said something he found smart or funny, brought him a tale of human foible, he let you know it with that big laugh. So entertaining him became part of the mission.
When we think of the greatest coaches, I think it’s good to remember the Kaplans. Not the ones with the information or the system, but the ones who had the simple human ability to connect, to communicate their belief in us, and who worked to make that belief come true. Information gets replaced; systems grow outdated. But the nice thing about inspiration is that it leads to other things. It never really ends.
[Kaplan] taught me how to be a writer. Even in the hospital in his robe with tubes in him, he wanted to nurture me. That was the reveal in Peter’s life: He loved the role of nurturing people’s gifts. All his creativity and glamour and imagination he poured into others, and yes, that gave him power. A lot of the celebration of Peter now is a reflection of that power; and the widespread grief includes many people like me, people who lost someone who so believed in them that he got them to believe in themselves, now what will we do? That’s the way we’ll honor his spirit, to live up to what he thought of us, to show him, tapping his cigar in the clouds, that he wasn’t wrong.