Making a mistake – no one likes to do that. Because no one wants to fail. Shame and maybe even a strong negative reaction from the boss are the consequences. But successful companies recognise an opportunity in mistakes – because they offer the chance to learn. And if you don’t dare to do anything (and thus also fail sometimes), you don’t win anything. Companies with a constructive error culture are more innovative, more agile and therefore more successful in the market.
I love the following story about the former head of IBM, Thomas Watson: After an employee had made a mistake and lost 600,000 dollars, he was asked to come into the boss’s office. “I know I made a serious mistake. You have to fire me,” he said. Watson replied: “Dismissed? Out of the question! I just invested 600,000 dollars in your further education.” So he didn’t want the competition to benefit from the learning the employee had done.
If you ask managers whether they live a culture of mistakes in their areas, they probably all say, “Yes, of course!” But in everyday life it often looks different. There are many employees who have had the experience that the boss reacts angrily to a mistake, perhaps even pillories them. A harsh rebuke, however, does not undo a mistake, but it can have lasting effects on the person concerned.
What does such a strong negative reaction from the superior trigger in the employee?
- Instead of daring to do something, employees devote all their energy to avoiding mistakes. They become paralysed and tense up, which makes mistakes happen all the more.
- They become super cautious and dare less to make sure they don’t make any more mistakes in the future. This means that they remain stuck and do not make any decisions. The statement of my former boss Oswald Grübel, ex-CEO of Credit Suisse and UBS, always comes to mind: “Better to decide and make a mistake than not to decide at all. Because without decisions there is no development, and without risk there is no success. American ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky puts it in a nutshell:” If you don’t shoot, you miss 100%.”
- Employees practice excessive perfectionism, which is very important in some professions, but in many others it costs a lot of time and even leads to a job not being completed. Perfectionism very often makes people inefficient and ineffective. More on this topic here: https://www.stressandbalance.ch/en/2018/11/13/when-good-is-not-good-enough/.
- When employees do make a mistake, they try to cover it up – which means that mistakes have even greater financial consequences than if they were corrected immediately.
It is also interesting to note that organisations that operate in highly dangerous, life-and-death fields, such as the aviation industry or medicine, place a lot of emphasis on a constructive and institutionalised error culture. This is because of the conviction that sharing about mistakes that have happened and learning from them can prevent further mistakes (including deaths).
To err is human
Of course, there are mistakes that should not happen, e.g. ethical misconduct or legal violations. And the same mistakes should not be repeated. But everyone makes mistakes. As the saying goes, “to err is human.” What is decisive is how one deals with it when a mistake has happened, so that the same mistake does not happen again, but one learns from it. Because mistakes are the basis for progress, further development and innovation. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg even believes that not wanting to make mistakes is the biggest mistake you can make: “The biggest risk is not taking risks. In a world that’s changing incredibly fast, not taking risks is the only strategy guaranteed to fail.”
However, most people have bad experiences with mistakes at an early age. Many parents sanction their children’s mistakes, and at school mistakes are marked in red and lead to a bad grade. Therefore, children already want to do everything perfectly and please their parents and teachers – and therefore dare to do less. Many adults then have to “reprogram” themselves. In companies, it is therefore of great importance that a culture of mistakes is not only laid down in the mission statement, but is actively lived. A climate free of fear and punishment must prevail.
Tips for a constructive error culture
A positive error culture is not about approving of errors in principle, but about finding a constructive way to deal with them. How do you do that?
- The motto should be: don’t find the culprit (and maybe even punish him), but look for a solution – in other words, look forward instead of back.
- The first priority is to try to correct the mistake, if possible. If this is not possible, then try to limit the damage.
- Then reflect and examine what caused it and what measures the person or others can take to prevent the same mistake from happening again (i.e. ask “why” rather than “who”).
- Encourage sharing among staff so that they realise that mistakes can also be opportunities for improvement and innovation.
- Reward honesty so that those affected quickly admit a mistake and the consequences can be limited. Covering up is much worse than admitting immediately, as hiding can potentially increase costs exponentially due to delayed action. The car company Toyota therefore does not take sanctions when an employee does something wrong, but when he tries to hide his mistake.
- Try to remain objective and seek personal dialogue.
- As a manager, you should be a role model and openly admit when you yourself have made a mistake.
- It is helpful in preventing mistakes if processes are well documented and checklists are kept so that it is clear to all employees how to proceed. This reduces errors due to lack of clarity.
- It is also worthwhile to systematically check again and again which errors occur more than once, which processes are frequently affected and how improvements can be tackled.
- Be creative and reward innovations that have emerged from small mistakes. In this way, you encourage the commitment and courage of your employees.
So the crucial thing is not that we don’t make mistakes. Because making mistakes is part of human nature. The US professor and educational consultant Laurence J. Peter aptly said: “You avoid mistakes by gaining experience. You gain experience by making mistakes.” What is much more important is what we do when we have made mistakes, to limit their damage and repeat future mistakes, and that mistakes are recognised as opportunities for development and innovation.
© Claudia Kraaz