Nurturing an error culture

Lena Görmann
Lena Görmann

We all make mistakes: in everyday life, in private life, and at work. Sometimes right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder, but mostly it is very easy to see if a mistake has been made. This is especially true in business, where business processes, figures and turnover are driving measures. The question then is how to deal with errors in the company, in the team and on an interpersonal level.

Many companies pride themselves on living an open error culture. It is considered modern, progressive and perhaps even obligatory to demonstrate that the individual of the employee is valued and accepted in all facets. In many cases, however, dealing with mistakes in companies is anything but open and natural. But there are some parameters that can help to improve the error culture.

The facts count

Wherever people are active, alone or in a group, mistakes happen. The more people are involved in a matter, e.g. in a team or a department, the more noticeable an individual's mistake becomes. However, since erring and misdoing are anchored in the human being it cannot be eliminated in any way. You can perhaps minimize the frequency of mistakes, for example through increased concentration, which is encouraged by a positive working atmosphere. Or you can change and improve the way you deal with mistakes. But you can't bend a person over in such a way that he doesn't make a mistake anymore.

The optimum in a company would be to improve the handling of mistakes in such a way that they are not only accepted as unavoidable but learn from them sustainably. It is crucial to focus on the facts and to separate the person, i.e. the causative agent, from them. Unfortunately, this is often difficult for superiors, because it is always easier to name the perpetrator than to possibly admit complicity. Instead, however, one should look at the overall situation without direct personal reference and as a boss also ask oneself:

  • What exactly makes the mistake a mistake?
  • Under what circumstances would he have been avoidable?
  • Did the employee have the right framework conditions at all to achieve an error-free result?
  • Were the time or period chosen incorrectly?
  • Did the employee's skills lie beyond the task where the error occurred and was he not the right choice for the task?

Learning from mistakes

It is important that the management on the one hand openly deals with such questions and on the other hand, also develops a communication culture in which mistakes are talked about as a normal issue. Every employee must feel secure in their position in order to talk about an error committed and obtain feedback from superiors and colleagues on how to deal with it and minimize damage. It is the task of management, department heads and team leaders to create a communication basis that allows this. The handling of the error and damage minimization does not concern the person who caused it, but the entire team, which will improve on the basis of the error.

And this is exactly the decisive difference: from error culture, which recognizes and names an error, but together with it usually also sees the cause and then remains there, to a learning culture, in which errors are regarded as part of a process for the group, which serves the continuous optimization of business processes and personal qualities. This would be a modern perspective for modern companies. Of course, such a perspective cannot be introduced as top-down instructions, which would be contrary to its own nature. But there are some means to enforce the establishment and implementation of this thinking and communication approach in the company.

  • The basic thought "We have made mistakes and we will always make mistakes. But if we handle it right, we won't make the same mistake three times."
  • Do not (personally) punish mistakes. A feeling of fear only increases the likelihood that people conceal it.
  • Sanction the concealment and whitewash of errors more strongly than the error itself.
  • Anchoring in employees the idea of acting quickly in the event of mistakes. The chance of damage minimization increases through fast, open communication and rapid countermeasures.

If it is generally clear to the team that it is not the person who causes a mistake who has to improve, but that the team as a whole learns from mistakes and that a mistake can lead to structural and process-related optimizations that advance the entire team in its work and cooperation - then the foundation is laid for a genuine error culture in which everyone benefits and works for common results.

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