The best organizations, argues Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, are “fearless.” By fearless, she doesn’t mean that they make bold and daring decisions but, rather, that they create a culture of psychological safety where employees aren’t afraid to make suggestions, ask questions, or admit mistakes. By removing fear from the equation, the business can innovate, grow, and thrive.
Part of the process of becoming fearless is to promote the detection and reporting of intentional or unintentional failures, both big and small, as early as possible. After detection, it’s essential to deeply analyze failures to understand their root causes and then try to mend them and learn for the future.
Parshat Vayikra details the intricacies of several different types of sacrifices. The first three are optional (olah, mincha, and shelamim) and the last two are mandatory (chatat and asham). The latter two are obligatory because they come as a result of sin. Failure requires atonement.
The chatat, though, requires explanation. It is brought for sins that were committed unintentionally (b’shogeig). Why should an unintentional sin require atonement?
Perhaps one of the goals of the requirement to bring these sacrifices is to create psychological safety for sin and failure. The institution of sacrifices balances the normalization of failure with responsibility and accountability. We should try to detect all levels of failure, intentional and unintentional. When we become aware of shortcomings, we should own up to them.
There is a system in place for everyone, even the anointed priest (kohen mashiach) and the leader (nasi), to atone for their unintentional sins. We should not be afraid to admit our failures.
After detection and admittance, it’s important to analyze the root cause of the failure. Professor Edmondson argues that most businesses only conduct superficial reviews and don’t sufficiently detect underlying factors. For the purposes of the chatat sacrifice, though, conducting a thorough review may be a little tricky. If the sin was accidental, what sort of deeper reason could be ascribed to it?
While the particulars of each case should be analyzed separately, there are several broad approaches in the commentators that may help one begin a personalized investigation. One possibility is to assume that while the act was inadvertent, there may have been a subconscious desire lurking beneath one’s conscious awareness. Such a perspective, which overlaps with a Freudian understanding of the subconscious, is suggested by both the Shem MiShmuel and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
In a slightly different approach, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler suggests that a person does not make mistakes in an area that is an integral part of their being. The mistake reveals that the value in question was not adequately internalized.
Finally, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch contends that even though the sin was not done on purpose, it’s indicative of a lack of attention and general carelessness. This itself is a deficiency that requires atonement.
Whichever perspective one takes, the key point is that there is a lot one can learn regarding even inadvertent failures. The chatat offering both served as a way to provide the context and safety to recognize failures and provided the space and framework for self-reflective analysis.
Even though we don’t offer this sacrifice nowadays, we would do well to learn from its eternal message by creating spaces where we can all healthily admit and analyze mistakes for the sake of personal and communal growth.