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Safeguarding the Work Environment for Candid Communication

A safe work environment lets employees make mistakes and learn from them.

Some time ago, while visiting a client in Boston, I heard an announcement come over the company intercom. A woman said, "My name is _____. I'm in cubicle _____. I believe I just deleted an important customer file. I don't think there is a backup. I need help, and I need it now." The candidness of the message and the woman's calm demeanor were surprising considering that the request was broadcast to the entire office. Later on, I asked to meet with this employee. I was curious about her honesty and wondered how she was able to muster the courage to ask for help over the intercom. She acknowledged that broadcasting her message wasn't easy; she had been with the company for only a few days and was in the midst of learning how to use the intricate database management system. She had simply executed a wrong command by mistake. The woman could not reach her supervisor or any of the team members who could help her, so she resorted to an instruction that she had received repeatedly during her orientation: Employees should never hide mistakes because doing so can lead to bigger problems.

Create a Safe Work Environment

The woman remembered her supervisor's specific emphasis on mistakes; while her organization tolerates errors, it won't accept employees who respond to those mistakes by sweeping them under the rug or pointing fingers. While she knew it would be difficult to be associated with a mistake, she was more concerned about harm to the company if the problem wasn't resolved promptly. This company is an example of a "safe" working environment.

It's important to build a trustworthy environment in which your project managers feel safe to ask for help when needed, especially in the event of a mistake. Rest assured that if you yell and scream and heads roll, your project managers will do their best to mask mistakes whenever problems occur. Worse yet, they will impugn others rather than take responsibility.

When a mistake does occur, it's natural to assign blame, but it's critical to resist this tendency. Instead of casting blame, the first thing to do is to examine the underlying processes that may have caused the mistake. Insufficient education, training and communication may be at the root of many problems. Mistakes happen, but it's important to determine whether they result from organizational process breakdowns or individual incompetence. Of course, if a staffer doesn't learn from his mistakes, the next step is to nip the problem in the bud by having a candid discussion about the employee's future with the organization.

Set the Right Tone

Your project managers must follow the same process with team members. Remember that project managers who are new to their position may have difficulty in making the transition, particularly if they are moving from the role of senior team member to that of project manager. It's always difficult to become a manager of former colleagues. In my project manager mentoring role, one of the most challenging tasks is to teach newly promoted project managers how to step into the leadership role. They need to establish an environment in which team members feel comfortable being forthright when they have to deliver bad news. Many project managers become passive-aggressive: They outwardly accept bad news but store it away for later use. Invariably, when bad things happen, team members pick up on the message that honesty doesn't pay and begin to sugarcoat or even hide bad news. All the while, problems continue to simmer, resulting in ugly blowups. Astute CIOs lead by example and help project managers create a supportive work environment.

Have you created a safe work environment?

Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification. To comment on this story, email

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