We’ve all heard the phrase ‘if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you are doomed to repeat them’. This seems like common sense. After all, we all drop the ball sometimes. So why are so many people afraid of owning up to mistakes at work?
In The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson points to one very simple reason. Logically, we know admitting to mistakes is important if we’re going to learn from them. But emotionally, we’re afraid of being seen as incompetent.
As she puts it, the message we get from broader culture is: “Don’t want to look ignorant? Don’t ask questions. Don’t want to look incompetent? Don’t admit to mistakes”.
It’s vital that leaders create a workplace culture which counteracts this, emphasising learning and growth rather than demanding instant perfection. This will help employees to feel psychologically safe, able to openly admit errors. Only then can they start to learn from their mistakes, instead of fearing them.
All mistakes are not equal
Of course, we all make mistakes sometimes. But they shouldn’t all be treated the same way.
It’s not appropriate to punish someone for an error which is down to them not receiving proper training. It’s also unhelpful to come down hard on someone for an honest mistake which they’re working to rectify, when they’re otherwise good at their job.
But if someone keeps repeating the same mistakes, they’re clearly not learning or taking responsibility. If they don’t seem to care about other people having to clean up their messes, that creates a toxic environment. The issue there is not actually the mistakes – it’s the broader attitude which they reveal.
Not all mistakes are actually mistakes
Inexperienced employees may fear admitting to mistakes a lot, wanting to prove it was worth hiring them. While there’s nothing wrong with striving for excellence, sometimes what they’re doing is fine, and you’d actually rather they didn’t spend longer on that task in future in an effort to achieve better results.
For example, someone might spot a couple of typos in copy they proofread, or realise they’ve been inputting rounded numbers into a spreadsheet rather than more precise ones. If they feel empowered to bring that up with their manager, they may learn that copy for internal use only needs a quick once-over, or the approximate data are well within the acceptable margin of error.
In this case, the lessons they learn from their ‘mistakes’ are important ones: prioritising; time management; and the fact that no one expects them to be perfect.
Hiding mistakes wastes time and energy
A good leader encourages accountability. One reason for this is that, frankly, hiding mistakes rather than owning up to them is a waste of resources.
It’s hard to have a productive team dynamic when people are trying to shift the blame for their errors onto other people. And it’s hard to hit targets when people are frantically working to correct their mistakes in secret.
Think about someone accidentally deleting a file, then redoing all the work in it because they don’t want their manager to realise their mistake. Wouldn’t it be better to just admit it, go to the IT team, and ask if they can recover the file?
To overcome that deep-rooted fear of looking incompetent, it’s important for leaders to model publicly taking responsibility for errors. Trying to look infallible will just make it seem like that’s what your workplace expects – unattainable perfection.
The best learning comes from mistakes
Failure can be a very effective teacher. Good leaders know this, and use it to encourage employees to admit mistakes and learn how to avoid repeating them.
One great example is the oft-cited case of a very costly mistake at IBM. As CEO Thomas John Watson Sr. recounted, “recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. ‘No’, I replied. ‘I just spent $600,000 training him – why would I want somebody to hire his experience?’”
Humans are (sometimes unfortunately) wired to remember negative experiences more clearly than positive ones. So when we make an embarrassing or inconvenient error, we’re likely to vividly remember what we did wrong, and how to avoid it in future.
Learning from mistakes shows mutual trust
Employees need to feel psychologically safe to admit to and learn from mistakes. But happily enough, the process of admitting to those mistakes will in itself help build psychological safety.
Taking responsibility for an error, and experiencing firsthand that you won’t be seen as incompetent for that, creates a sense of trust. You’ve been told you won’t be punished for honest mistakes, and the company followed through on that promise. In return, you’re more likely to work hard to avoid repeating the mistake.