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Stop the Blame Game: How to Deal with Mistakes Productively

Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas

27 September 2019 | Vienna Global Leaders

Where people work, mistakes can and do happen.

Yet many companies lack the confidence to talk about mistakes openly. This can have serious consequences on their innovation, as ignoring mistakes means ignoring learning new things. The history of the Post-it® brand shows that an unsuccessful attempt to develop a superglue ultimately became a global success.

Though there are exceptions  in risk environments such as healthcare or aviation, a zero-defect claim is necessary due to possible fatal consequences  in other areas, it is essential to actively live a certain error tolerance / error friendliness. 

Don’t search for mistakes, search for solutions! (Henry Ford)

Recently, researchers have started focusing on an approach named “error management culture”. Empirical evidence shows that whether errors become lessons depends on how errors are dealt with. Too often, people focus on assigning blame or remain stuck in the question of guilt.

Therefore, to achieve a productive error management culture, the following four pillars are essential:

  1. Detect errors (quickly)
  2. Correct errors
  3. Discuss mistakes openly and learn from them
  4. Address and minimize the consequences of error

How can we implement a productive error culture?

To create a productive error culture and learn from mistakes, both within and between departments, it is essential to deal with the topic at the organizational level. This requires providing more transparency of errors, a detailed insight into errors, and creating an open dialogue based on trust.

To deal productively with errors also means:

  • to accept that errors happen
  • not to insist on preventing errors at all times, but rather to limit it to avoiding the most serious errors (through quality and risk management as well as internal control systems)
  • and to learn from errors as systematically as possible, instead of “just by chance”

An organization’s ability to learn in general increases immensely, if errors are analyzed and, in a further step, learnt from. Very often, mistakes can already be prevented by talking about small incidents, so to speak “almost mistakes” or “near misses”.

Possible questions for discussion, and thus starting points for a manager with the team, would be:

  • Are we capable of openly addressing problems and difficult conflicts?
  • Is it safe to take a risk in my team?
  • Is it easy to ask other team members for help?
  • Do we get upset if an error occurs?
  • Are we concerned – maybe even worried – during work that errors might occur?
  • Are we relieved if someone other than ourselves makes an error?
  • Do we feel advantages, or more comfortable, in covering up our errors

Learn from mistakes of others – but how?

Middle management and executives play a central role in creating a productive error culture. Their reaction to errors can lead to a corporate culture which is either negative or open to mistakes. Therefore, it should be explicitly communicated that openness to occurred mistakes is rewarded and never leads to punishment or accusation, while the concealment of mistakes is clearly viewed as negative.

An essential instrument to stimulate this dialogue is to organize events or team meetings in which management itself and executives talk about their own mistakes. In Austria, for example, events organized by the platform Fuckup Nights, following the motto “We Live Life Without Filters”, aim at learning from the mistakes of others. During these events, both start-ups and established managers and organizations report openly to the public about their failed projects, their huge mistakes, but more importantly, what they have learned and what they have done better in the next attempt. Thus, a transfer of knowledge takes place that ultimately benefits everyone. Following this example, “Organizational Fuckup Nights” could be arranged in an organization as well. It is very important to adapt the title of such an event to the organizational reality 😊, as the term “Fuckup” is not socially accepted everywhere or might even provoke negative feelings.

In any case, managers should be encouraged to create an environment that promotes feedback of any kind, e.g. on process problems or new ideas. For example, an open discussion can be used in monthly meetings to analyze whether similar processes or triggers also lead to similar situations in other departments or teams, or how others deal with them.

Furthermore, it is important to note that a “culture of encouragement” must have a positive connotation and a corresponding language. A question such as “What went wrong today?” would rather be formulated as, “What went well again today?” With such a question you can learn from potential mistakes. Similarly, in the case of mistakes or near-misses that happened, the question could be “Why did this seem to make sense to you?” rather than “Why did you do this?” – the latter suggesting bad will or incompetence, whereas the former suggests that a mistake is often only recognized as such after it has occurred.

Conclusion

While a zero-error claim is necessary in high-risk environments, in all other areas it is essential to actively live an error tolerance / error friendliness. This means to break up the “blame game”, to avoid cover-ups of mistakes, and to signal readiness to talk about mistakes. This leads not only to better innovation, but also mistake reduction due to a more positive company climate and good cooperation.

 

Literature

  • Herzig, Michael (2017): Fehlerkultur: Was ist ein produktiver Umgang mit Fehlern? White Paper, Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften, Institut für Sozialmanagement.
  • Zapf, Dieter/Frese, Michael/Brodbeck, Felix C. (1999): Fehler und Fehlermanagement. In: D. Frey, C. Graf Hoyos & D. Stahlberg. Arbeits- und Organisations-Psychologie, Weihneim: Beltz Verlag, S. 398-411.
  • Schüttelkopf, Elke M. (2007): Erfolgsstrategie Fehlerkultur! Wie Organisationend urch einen professionellen Umgang mit Fehlern ihre Performance optimieren.
  • Keith, N., & Frese, M. (2010): Enhancing firm performance and innovativeness through error management culture. In N.M. Ashkanasy, C.P.M. Wilderom & M.F. Peterson (Eds).), The handbook of organizational culture & climate (2nd, pp. 137-157). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

 

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Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas

Barbara is a senior researcher and lecturer at different universities in Austria and abroad and Visiting Professor at the University of Valencia/Spain. Her research and training focus includes New Ways of Working, Flexible Organizations, Organizational Culture and Digital Leadership. These topics also form the focus in her keynotes, workshops and coaching activities. Read more

Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas

Barbara is a senior researcher and lecturer at different universities in Austria and abroad and Visiting Professor at the University of Valencia/Spain. Her research and training focus includes New Ways of Working, Flexible Organizations, Organizational Culture and Digital Leadership. These topics also form the focus in her keynotes, workshops and coaching activities. Read more

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