top of page

How to Fail Safely: why it isn't all bad when things go wrong

The first in a series of workplace culture blogs written by Stacey Blease on behalf of VetLed

"Is it possible to fail safely?"

Stabilising confidence

The University of Salford’s Failure Friday event within their Festival of Research has further sparked my interest in this area. I started to think about how as a child, there were often mechanisms in place to allow us to fail within a safe environment. A classic example is learning to ride a bike. Initially stabilisers are used which are at ground level.

As ability and confidence grow, the stabilisers can be raised gradually until they are no longer needed. I am not sure how long my parents kept my stabilisers for but I am pretty sure they held onto them for a while just in case of multiple wobbles and falls to help rebuild my confidence if needed. Sticking with the transport theme, when having driving lessons with an instructor, the car often has dual controls so that learners have the experience of driving a car but the instructor can intervene to prevent a near miss becoming an accident. Both of these scenarios are appealing because people know they can try to learn something new with support until they are confident.

Have I fallen off my bike as an adult? Yes. Have I been in a car accident? Yes. Even though I have many years of experience with both forms of transport, accidents still happen.

Cultivating confidence

Both of the examples above describe learning a new skill with physical support of stabilisers or dual car controls but as a veterinary graduate, you are not issued with stabilisers or someone to sit next to you with dual controls and the ability to override your actions should things start to go awry. Let’s face it, there is a steep learning curve after graduation and every day is a school day. Although physical safety aids might not be present, is there more that could be done psychologically to provide support in practice?

Making mistakes is a part of the learning process but depending on how near misses and mistakes are dealt with, they can have a detrimental effect on confidence. If individuals are blamed and vilified for accidents, mistakes and even near misses, the chances of reporting such incidents are reduced. However, if employees are working in an environment which invites people to share ‘failures’, the individual, his/her colleagues and the practice can benefit by learning from the incident. Regularly discussing near misses and incidents can help to normalise this topic of conversation and minimise the worry individuals may have when it comes to speaking up.

“Psychological safety describes perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace” (Edmondson, 1999).

To be honest when I first read this, I wasn’t sure what the definition of ‘interpersonal risks’ was but further in the article it stated, “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up”. I think this would apply to a wide range of scenarios from mispronouncing a word (very easy with some of the drug names within veterinary medicine!), sharing new ideas, asking for help and when talking about mistakes. Working within a team where a culture of high psychological safety is present allows people to be human. We don’t get it right all of the time but having psychological safety stabilisers will help to encourage people to express concerns and share ideas to further improve patient safety in practice.

Confidence is crucial

Confidence allows you to be curious and try new things, provides a platform to obtain feedback and share ideas, enables you to support your colleagues and demonstrate leadership qualities.

Confidence comes when you work in an environment where you can share your thoughts, experiences and mistakes without fear of judgement. This will not make veterinary practices and hospitals immune to errors, however it will help individuals learn and share, ultimately improving patient outcomes.


Edmondson, A. (1999) Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly. Volume 44, No. 2 pp. 350-383

After graduating from the University of Liverpool Vet School with an intercalated Master’s degree from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Stacey worked in general practice. She completed her PhD at Harper Adams University on dairy herd health planning. Stacey has worked for an online CPD provider, The Webinar Vet and the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) as the Head of Learning & Development. Currently, Stacey is a trustee for the Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF). Stacey's experience is diverse and her passions include research, education, organisational culture and innovation.

112 views0 comments


bottom of page