What can you learn from mistakes?

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7 min read

Everyone makes mistakes, everyone has a tale to tell about a horrendous project or a complete disaster - but failures are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, from F***Up-Nights to Ted Talks, the business world has realized that a failure can be a great way to grow and learn.

Content:

  1. Common causes for mistakes
  2. The importance of a healthy error culture
  3. How can you support a positive error culture?
  4. The advantages of mistakes

A study on cyber-attacks developed by Stanford University and Tessian showed that an environment that is big on punishment and doesn't allow for mistakes will actually hurt the entire organization because people will still make mistakes but they will not be transparent about them (read more about what that means for cybere security in our blog article).

Additionally, the study showed that professionals are less likely to admit to their mistakes because they're scared that they would lose their reputation and standing within the organization.

Everyone makes mistakes. That's a given and you can't prevent it. And science has shown that it can even harm to prevent them (to a degree) because humans can be more creative and innovative, learn from mistakes and connect with other people by sharing them.

 

(To clarify, in the following, I will use "mistakes" and "errors" when talking about usual business mistakes within a certain scope - so think more "messed up a deadline" and less "ruined the lives of hundreds of people")

Common causes for mistakes

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The following causes are derived from the lovingly titled Scientific American article "The Psychology of the breathtakingly stupid mistake" by David Z. Hambrick.

  1. Too much confidence, too little skills 

Quite often, underperformers don't see themselves as underperformers and would rate their own skills much higher than they are (this is also known as the Dunner-Kruger effect). If, for example, someone is hired based on their confidence instead of their actual experience and skills (which, might I say, can happen in many business scenarios), mistakes are bound to happen.

  1. Impulsivity

Sometimes, our impulses get the best of us and instead of thinking things through, taking a step back and observing a situation or even asking for feedback, we just do something. In private life, this is most often the drunk text message or the impulse purchase on a shopping spree. However, even in business, impulsive actions can cause havoc, if they are not based on facts and experience but rather on gut feelings and a shot of adrenaline.

  1. Attention lapses

Sometimes, your own mind is against you. "Blunders" which can happen when we're experiencing cognitive overloads, high tensions or exhaustion, usually involve a thinking process that turns in the wrong direction, for example, when you pour the salt in your coffee because you're already thinking about your next meeting.

The importance of a healthy error culture

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As already stated, a company culture that punishes and points fingers instead of looking for solutions and fixes, will most likely have just as many errors but also more difficulty of fixing them if no one dares to admit to them. It is therefore all the more important to keep a healthy error culture.

"Error culture" is being defined differently by different people. Critics go so far to say that it entails the encouragement of errors, which seems highly unlikely in any work environment unless within a learning/testing scenario. Yes, some thought leaders might talk about this on LinkedIn but I think we can all agree that in practice, even the most open-minded leaders still want their teams to prevent mistakes as much as possible. To consciously make mistakes during learning and experimenting is something completely different (and, according to studies, quite productive).

Personally, I see a healthy error culture as a way to talk about, address, and solve errors while upholding a respectful environment, enabling people with the right channels and tools to manage mistakes. Above all, consequences of mistakes should not be mistaken for punishment. Consequences can mean better processes and transparency, and don't have to include a public spanking.

An unhealthy culture would lead to:

  • secrecy & coverups
  • lack of ownership
  • refusal to take responsibilities
  • decrease of creativity & innovation
  • lacking team spirit (since everyone tries to safe their own skin)

A positive error culture can enable a company to have:

  • transparent workflows & processes
  • employees & teams that take responsibilities & own their topics
  • an environment that lends itself to experiments & innovation
  • a respectful communication based on trust & openness

How can you support a positive error culture?

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  • Address issues in 1:1 conversation when they concern individuals - that way, no one has to "lose face" in front of their colleagues.
  • Never lose your temper. Frustration is understandable but anger - especially if you're a superior - should never guide your actions in a professional setting.
  • Never blame mistakes on a single person, often enough, reasons are complex. Especially avoid any finger pointing in front of partners or customers.
  • Focus on the problem solution instead of the mistake itself.
  • Ask how to avoid mistakes in the future and optimize processes, templates, provide training, more resources, etc.
  • Never assume that someone made a mistake on purpose, give them the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.
  • Empathize with colleagues/employees who made a mistake - it never feels good and usually, the responsible party feels bad about it as it is.
  • Trust in your employees/colleagues even if they made a mistake. Don't micromanage, as this usually makes things worse.

The advantages of mistakes

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So, we talked about the reason for mistakes and how a healthy error culture can create a much more open and trusting collaboration. But we've yet to explain why mistakes, errors, and failures can also help you grow as a person, as a team and even as a company.

Making (small) mistakes and admitting to them elicits sympathy

The Pratfall Effect describes how highly competent people appear more likeable when they make a mistake than those who don't. Apparently, people can relate more to superiors, superstars and experts if they stumble and show their weaknesses.

Mistakes can help you to gain deeper knowledge

In an astounding article by Wong and Lim in the "Journal of Educational Psychology" the authors describe that deliberate errors can actually "promote meaningful learning". Apparently making a mistake whilst fully knowing that it is wrong, and then correcting it, creates a better learning experience.

 

Mistakes are opportunities for optimization

Sometimes, a mistake can shed light on bigger issues that might have gone unnoticed such as unclear responsibilities, faulty processes or lacking tools. Especially, if mistakes or failures keep on happening, it's a great opportunity to take a step back and take a look at the overall process to see why things don't work out.

Mistakes are opportunities to grow & change as a person

Likewise, mistakes can also help to change (for the better) as a person. Especially experts, professionals and leaders can get a little bit cagey when it comes to owning up to mistakes for fear of losing respect and standing. However, likewise, these experts, professionals and leaders are less likely to learn something new and adapt to new developments and information if they believe that they never make a mistake.

The more self-confidence, the less likely a person is to double check. Additionally, highly confident people are more likely to go into defense instead of problem-solving mode which can even turn into denial, as Kathryn Schulz writes in her book "Being Wrong" (quoted by Gustavo Razzetti for "Psychology Today").

Every single person can learn from mistakes and take different things from them:

  • The world doesn't end
  • Things can be fixed
  • People are willing to forgive & empathize
  • You yourself are not infallible
  • You yourself don't have to be infallible
  • You're much more resilient than you thought you would be
  • You're very capable in a crisis

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by Juliane Waack

Juliane Waack is Editor in Chief at DIGITALL and writes about the digital transformation, megatrends and why a healthy culture is essential for a successful business.

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