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Lessons of the Broken Wrench

Mark Cappone
September 16, 2021

Leading others who are returning to the physical office after COVID-19 is not easy. But I was inspired to share a powerful way to manage it after a recent discovery at home that brought back a flood of memories…

While rummaging through a box of Army mementos recently, I came across a plain-looking plaque that brought back a flood of memories. Brown and non-descript, it had a wrench that had been cut in half and bracketed onto the wood with black decal lettering that stated simply, “The Broken Wrench.”

This somewhat inglorious award is actually one of my most treasured. As a young lieutenant, I was assigned the additional duty of company maintenance officer for a time. The Broken Wrench was an ‘award’ that was passed among the maintenance officers each month and was presented to the lieutenant who had screwed something up royally in the past 30 days. I’m not sure how it ended up in my footlocker nearly 30 years later, but I do vividly remember being called out for being alone and getting my Humvee stuck in a tank ditch at Ft. Stewart, GA.

Not only had I gotten the vehicle stuck (which was pretty hard to do), I had violated the cardinal rule of always having an assistant driver and had also been observed getting assistance towing it out of the ditch by a helpful civilian in his Jeep CJ. Ouch.

While embarrassed, I wasn’t ashamed or humiliated; in fact, I actually shared in the laughter among the team as I received it. It was an environment of curiosity and even some compassion.  That’s because we treated the passing of the Broken Wrench as a learning event. As we passed it around, we shared what was supposed to have happened, what actually happened, what we would do the same and what we would do differently in the future as we learned and grew. We did this without fear of anything more than some ribbing and used it as a non-judgmental examination of how we could do better in the future.

Decades later, I recognize those Broken Wrench ceremonies as providing psychological safety. Harvard professor Dr. Amy Edmonson is one of the world’s leading experts on psychological safety and defines it as, “…the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation[1].” In his research on psychological safety, author and consultant Dr. Timothy R. Clark has found that, “If we can, banish fear, install true performance-based accountability, and create a nurturing environment that allows people to be vulnerable as they learn and grow, they will perform beyond your expectations and theirs[2].”

As I reflect upon the entire Broken Wrench experience, I realize it was about so much more than being given a hard time for messing something up. It was about leaders setting the conditions to ensure psychological safety, treating major challenges as learning events and providing a judgment-free, inclusive and compassionate environment.

The inherent anxiety we had because we were relatively new at our jobs or had made a mistake was reduced by our leaders redirecting it into a learning experience, making us better leaders in the end.

Another psychological safety imperative surely will be reinstating office work. Many will feel anxious coming back to this environment after working remotely for a year or more.  I believe the Broken Wrench signifies even greater meaning now and highlights things leaders should address[3]:

  • Change spikes anxiety and coming back to the office represents a change – We all knew the cultural norms behind the Broken Wrench, which reduced our apprehension when we showed up for the maintenance meetings. How might leaders provide a sense of normalcy to acknowledge and help reduce the anxiety around the changes that are happening upon return?
  • We become anxious about confronting something we’ve avoided – Openly and regularly talking about our mistakes during the Broken Wrench events helped reduce our anxiety while and after confronting them. How might leaders better understand and address what their team members are anxious about confronting, like a new childcare arrangement or other new routines started during the pandemic?
  • There is a work-from-home / office-life polarity to manage: Just as we talked about what to stop doing and what to keep doing after our ‘Broken Wrench’ events, how might leaders help their teams decide on what the best parts of working from home and office have been and do those more?

We’ve all experienced a great deal of change in our lives over the past year, and leaders are now responsible for leading their teams through more change as we return to the office. Leading from a place of curiosity, non-judgment and compassion can help teams learn and grow from their collective experiences.


[2] Clark, T. (2020). The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (xiii).